Here Comes Spring

After the pressure, intensity and focus of a Big March, a much smaller April was admittedly more fun as the hints of migration that I took advantage of in March came into full bloom with the arrival of many new species and fun birding opportunities alone and with friends. In March I did at least some birding on 28 of the 31 days with 217 species and 144 checklists submitted to Ebird. In my much quieter April, there were only 31 checklists (almost half of which were from a single marathon trip to Eastern Washington with a new birding friend), 126 species and 13 days of birding (3 of which were only reporting a single species incidentally from my home). Of those 126 species seen in April, 16 were species I had not seen in March including 7 that had been on my original March target list but were missed.

With the exception of BARRED OWL and TRICOLORED BLACKBIRD, the new species for April were migrants returning either after March or perhaps late in March but just missed by me. There will not be many days of birding in May, but especially if I at least do one good day in Eastern Washington, I expect the same will hold true – newly returned migrants making up most if not all of the new birds for the year. Sixty-one of the species seen in March were new for the year, i.e. 28% of the species seen in March were new. Whereas in April, 16 were new for the year – only 13%. The highlights for April were trips with friends – with Ann Marie Wood in Snohomish County on April 14th and the marathon with Tom St. John on April 27th and two really good birds, a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER at Lake Ballinger on April 5th and again on April 6th, my first for Snohomish County (#265) and a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW at Marymoor Park on April 23, my first for King County (#253).

My first birding in April was totally unplanned. I was out running errands when I got a call from Ann Marie Wood that a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER had been seen at Lake Ballinger – a few miles away from me. There was also a message with photos on the Snohomish County Rare Bird List on WhatsApp. I have a spare pair of binoculars in the car – backups in case I or someone else forgets theirs – but no camera. I debated going home for my regular gear, but decided instead to head over. The message on WhatsApp was a little unclear as to exactly which tree the Sapsucker was favoring and the attached map photo showed trees that might have been either deciduous or evergreens, but the photo with the bird itself – small, probably from a phone – showed it atop a deciduous tree and that was the key. I found the Sapsucker and called the friend who had alerted me and was on the way over. I said I had it and would wait for them. While I was waiting Carol Riddell and Kellie Sagen arrived and following one of the best guidelines in any chase, they looked for the birder hoping he or she would be on the target. I was, so they soon were as well.

As I was starting to text another birding friend, Jon Houghton, I got a text from him that he and wife Kathleen had just seen a perching BARRED OWL at Southwest County Park, a few miles away. Ann Marie arrived with Steve Pink and found us and the Sapsucker. That allowed Carol, Kellie and me to go for the owl. It is always hard to give directions for a place you are familiar with to someone who is not. Jon’s directions were great, but we still missed one turn and only by checking back with him and then with Carol’s keen eyes, were we able to see the owl – down low and somewhat obscured but unmistakable. I had tried at least a half dozen times in March to find a BARRED OWL and failed. On try number one in April there was success. That’s birding. I had no camera, so there were no photos of either species.

RED BREASTED SAPSUCKERS are common/regular in Snohomish County and elsewhere in Washington. RED NAPED SAPSUCKERS are regular east of the Cascades but very rare west of them and this one was the first for Snohomish County that I was aware of. I went back the next day and got my photo. I had photos of the even rarer (anywhere in Washington) YELLOW BREASTED SAPSUCKER that favored one specific tree in Everett, Washington in Snohomish County during the winter of 2020-21. As far as I know there are only two records of WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKER in Snohomish County – both from mountainous areas in 2015. Maybe someday I will complete the set.

Red Naped Sapsucker
Yellow Bellied Sapsucker – Everett 2020

As much birding as I have done in the area especially over the last 12 years, I am always surprised to find a great place I have not visited before. A very rare for the area BLACK HEADED GULL had been seen at one such place, Dumas Bay Park along Puget Sound in South King County early in April, but being somewhat in recovery mode from the intensity of Big March and being in caretaker mode after Cindy’s knee surgery, and also having seen one in King County before, I had not made the chase. Rested and with some free time, on April 13th, I made my first visit ever to what turned out to be a very cool spot. It was low tide and I saw literally hundreds of gulls with black heads, but unfortunately they were all BONAPARTE’S GULLS. I guess I should not say unfortunately, because it was a great spectacle and they are very attractive – just not rare – gulls. Also in the mix were my first CASPIAN TERNS of the year – another species targeted and missed in March.

Caspian Tern

April 14th was a particularly fun day as schedules finally meshed so that Ann Marie Wood and I could bird together along the Highway 530 Corridor in Snohomish County. I have birded the area many times but it always seems new to me and Ann Marie knows it like the back of her hand. Our first stop was along the Oso Loop Road – too early for the AMERICAN REDSTARTS that are regular there later (we did look) but rewarding as we saw or heard at least 4 TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRES – more than I have ever seen together before.

Townsend’s Solitaire – Oso Loop Road

At our next stop on C-Post Road we had great looks at three RED BREASTED SAPSUCKERS and a constantly heard but never seen SORA – my first of the year.

Red Breasted Sapsucker

Ann Marie reminded me that the Fortson Mill Ponds were a great place for AMERICAN DIPPERS and as soon as we walked in we had two posing and interacting. I got much better photos than in Kittitas County in March.

American Dipper – Fortson Mill Ponds

At least in terms of rarity, our best birds were two WESTERN BLUEBIRDS seen at 407th Avenue. This is a good area in the County for them and these two, spotted after some diligence by Ann Marie were maybe a bit early and good finds. They were too distant for photos. We also had a number of PURPLE FINCHES heard and seen often throughout the whole area.

My next birding forays were at spots close to home – Yost Park on April 18th and the Edmonds Fishing Pier and Pine Ridge Park on April 19th. I was hoping for a First of Year (“FOY”) BLACK THROATED GRAY WARBLER at Yost or maybe a HERMIT THRUSH. I found neither but seemed to be surrounded by singing ORANGE CROWNED WARBLERS and was able to get a photo

Orange Crowned Warbler – Yost Park

I had not gone back to Southwest County Park to look for the BARRED OWL, but on April 19, after a good visit to the Edmonds fishing pier, I did find two at Pine Ridge Park that day, the same place I had failed to find them in March despite many tries. At the pier, a few species that had been absent or distant earlier were now closer, and a couple that had been in winter plumage just a few weeks ago were now sporting their breeding finery.

Red Necked Grebe – Edmonds Fishing Pier
Marbled Murrelets
Rhinoceros Auklet
Horned Grebe
Pacific Loon

At Pine Ridge, on my way back to the car I saw what I thought was an owl back in the woods. It took some bushwhacking, but I watched two owls hunting. One made a really pathetic attempt at catching a Gray Squirrel, so I wondered if maybe it was a juvenile just learning to hunt. Every time I thought I would get a photo, they would take off again and a great picture turned into a fleeting one – oh well. Why did these BARRED OWLS curse me in March!!??

Barred Owl

On April 19th, a GRASSHOPPER SPARROW was seen and photographed at Marymoor Park in Redmond. Often hard to find even in its grassland habitat in Eastern Washington, they are extremely rare in Western Washington where I had never seen one. If I were a county lister, I would have rushed over there – well it is not exactly easy to rush as it is 27 miles away through some of the potentially worst traffic in the area. Ebird keeps track of my county lists for me, but it is not a specific goal to add to any county list. Not so for many others and many of them went to Marymoor in the next several days to see what turned out to be a most cooperative bird, often being found in the open on the pathway near the “viewing mound”. On April 23rd I wanted to get out and the weather was nice, so I joined the crowd and went to Marymoor. There I fortunately ran into Kellie Sagen who had seen it 30 minutes earlier and took me to the spot. Nothing – for 30 minutes and then the show began. Just as reported by others the GRASSHOPPER SPARROW flew into some weeds next to the path where I picked it out and then proceeded to feed in the open on the path for at least the next 45 minutes. A very nice add to my Ebird tracked King County List. It remained at the park for another day and then … disappeared.

Grasshopper Sparrow – Marymoor Park

While waiting for the GRASSHOPPER SPARROW to make its appearance, we were faked out several times by a SAVANNAH SPARROW in the same area – its natural habitat. I had seen one in Clark County during Big March but no photo. This one was easy.

Savannah Sparrow – Marymoor Park

What was not easy was seeing a BLACK THROATED GRAY WARBLER at Yost Park. Hearing them was easy as 5 or maybe even 6 were singing, but they would not come in closer for a good view let alone a photo. They were the first for the year, but they are a favorite and I wanted a photo. It’s now May – I will try again. As before, there were ORANGE CROWNED WARBLERS trilling everywhere.

It really wasn’t “birding” but on Monday April 25th I was pleased to first hear and then see a small group of PURPLE MARTINS fly overhead as I walked our dog. They were a pleasant surprise last year and now they were back. No camera, no photo. Just a “tick” for another FOY in 2022.

Tom St. John is a new friend and a new birding friend. We had done one trip together back in February and now we were heading out again – mostly retracing a long day I had done with Ann Marie and Steve Pink in Eastern Washington on April 27, 2018. On that trip we had 84 species including some really good ones such as BURROWING OWL and GRAY PARTRIDGE. Tom had not birded in Eastern Washington before and was up for everything even the 5:30 a.m. start. I had invited Ann Marie and Steve as well. Ann Marie couldn’t make it but Steve and his wife Connie met us at our first stop – the Hyak hummingbird feeders at Snoqualmie Pass and birded with us for the morning part of the trip. I tried there in March and there were no hummers. This time there were maybe 6 RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS, a far cry from the dozens often seen there, but a confirmation that Spring has sprung.

Following the route from 2018, our next stop was at Bullfrog Pond just west of Cle Elum. We picked up 27 species there including First of Year WARBLING VIREO and NASHVILLE WARBLER and a surprise WILD TURKEY. We had some very noisy RED CROSSBILLS and CASSIN’S FINCHES but it was relatively quiet and inactive maybe because it was still pretty cold. There were no swallows which probably meant no bugs and birds were not yet actively feeding. There also were no ducks and no DIPPERS in the Cle Elum River.

Red Crossbills

It was almost as quiet at the Northern Pacific Railroad Ponds in South Cle Elum, but we found MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES and PYGMY NUTHATCHES. We added our first ducks: RING NECKED DUCKS, HOODED MERGANSER and BUFFLEHEAD, but no GOLDENEYE or COMMON MERGANSERS. We also had swallows. Only a few TREE SWALLOWS at the ponds themselves but a few VIOLET GREEN and numerous NORTHERN ROUGH WINGED SWALLOWS at the bridge just east of the ponds. The latter were my first of the year and another species missed in March. It seemed very distant at the time, but my greatly cropped and magnified photo of an OSPREY turned out well.

Mountain Chickadee – Northern Pacific RR Ponds
Northern Rough Winged Swallow – Northern Pacific RR Ponds

Our best bird of the trip was probably one at our next stop, a CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, at the Denny Avenue feeders at Aja Woodrow’s house. I have had them there before but never this early. Aja came out when he saw us. We were watching a few RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS when he told us that he had had a CALLIOPE there earlier. Right on cue, it made an appearance and gave us great views. It was also joined by an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD.

Calliope Hummingbird – Cle Elum
Rufous Hummingbird – Cle Elum

On the way to Denny Avenue, I had intended to stop at the Ranger’s Station in Cle Elum to see if their feeder or the feeders across the road were active. Steve said he had not had any luck there, but we stopped anyhow – a good decision. Steve had not known about the feeders across the street and they were busy. We cautiously walked closer as the owners were loading a car and it is always touchy around private property, but as soon as they saw us they said we were welcome to visit. We had 7 species there including some very showy male EVENING GROSBEAKS and a WHITE BREASTED NUTHATCH, our third NUTHATCH species of the day.

Evening Grosbeak – Cle Elum

We had only heard the PYGMY NUTHATCHES at the RR Ponds and Steve and Connie said they were easy at the Cle Elum Airport. I had never been there but we were behind schedule so passed on the opportunity. Probably a mistake as later they visited it and had an early MACGILLIVRAY’S WARBLER. Our priority was to find the sagebrush species. I had seen them all in March but all would be new for Tom and new for the year for the Pinks. So we headed for Old Vantage Highway keeping our eyes out for newly arrived SWAINSON’S HAWKS. Just as we hit the Highway past No. 81 Road I saw a hawk perched on a telephone pole. A quick stop and quick view confirmed it was a FOY SWAINSON’S HAWK. Everyone got out for good views and then I moved closer for photos. I continued past it to get closer and better light. It watched me the entire way and then started screaming at me as I passed. No attack but a great photo op.

Unhappy Swainson’s Hawk – Ellensburg

A little further on we had the only CALIFORNIA QUAIL of the trip and our first WESTERN BLUEBIRD and WESTERN MEADOWLARKS. Tom’s appreciation of his first WESTERN BLUEBIRD was soon surpassed when he saw the MOUNTAIN version which we found on a very successful visit to our first sage area, a spot introduced to me by good friend and local birder Deb Essman. It is on Old Vantage Highway and is saved on my Garmin GPS as “Awesome Deb’s Awesome Sage”. We did very well with BREWER’S and VESPER SPARROWS, SAGE THRASHER and those beautiful MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS. In my Big March birding, SAGE THRASHER had eluded me here twice even though it has generally been my best location for the species. This time a singing male perched beautifully close at hand.

Brewer’s Sparrow
Sage Thrasher
Mountain Bluebird

We did not do so well at the Quilomene Corrals on Old Vantage Highway where it was dead quiet or at Recreation Road and Rocky Coulee where we had only distant views of ROCK WREN and SAY’S PHOEBE. It was at this point that we parted ways with Steve and Connie as Tom and I continued east crossing the Columbia at Vantage heading to the County Line Ponds in Grant County. I had been counting on this spot to deliver for Tom as he had never seen either BLACK NECKED STILTS or AMERICAN AVOCETS. Both were in full splendor when we arrived along with some DUNLIN and my FOY LEAST SANDPIPERS.

Black Necked Stilt
American Avocets
Least Sandpiper

Good fortune continued at Para/McCain’s Ponds in Adams County where our 29 species included the targeted TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS that I had missed there in March as well as numerous much appreciated YELLOW HEADED BLACKBIRDS and two GREAT EGRETS. The only disappointments were no AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS and neither BLUE WINGED or CINNAMON TEAL and no RUDDY DUCKS. But the blackbirds more than compensated. We also had our best views of WESTERN MEADOWLARK.

Tricolored Blackbirds
Yellow Headed Blackbird
Western Meadowlark

It was now 4 o’clock. Sure thing spots for BURROWING OWL were too far away, so we decided to head back along Highway 24 keeping our eyes open for what I felt was our worst miss of the day – WESTERN KINGBIRD. I had almost guaranteed finding one. We never did. At one moment along the Highway I saw some long dirt mounds and said they were exactly the kind of place we might find an owl burrow. Literally 5 seconds later we saw a perfect burrow in one mound. We pulled over and watched for some time. No owl, no mammal, just a burrow. We drove into Wahluke Slope NWR. It sure looked like great habitat for AMERICAN PIPITS or HORNED LARKS, but the only bird species we saw were WHITE CROWNED SPARROWS, ubiquitous the whole day. The best species was a mammal – a small group of ELK cautiously watching us.

Wahluke Slope Elk

We tried surprisingly unsuccessfully and disappointingly for WHITE THROATED SWIFT at Frenchman Coulee and then called it a day. We ended with 86 species – of which 8 were new for the year for me and maybe half were species Tom had never seen. He wants more. And there easily could have been more that day – at least 10 species were at least fairly likely and another 5 or so might have been found with great luck. In fact combining the lists from the 2018 trip with ours, the species total was 107.

There was one last birding fling for the month – a trip to Stanwood looking for a large flock of WHIMBRELS that had been seen in the area and also a WESTERN KINGBIRD that Ann Marie had found. It was a fun visit as I drove loops through the area looking for both species. I found the flock of WHIMBRELS on Olsen Road – at least 50 spread throughout a large field. There could have been many more. I drove that road at least three times. On my last pass, a BALD EAGLE flew overhead and all of the WHIMBRELS took off and headed southeast. I don’t know if they returned. Had my first pass been 5 minutes later, I would have missed WHIMBRELS altogether – just as I had in March when I missed the pair that had been seen by many in Blaine, Washington. As on the trip with Tom, I failed to find a WESTERN KINGBIRD. Maybe somewhere in May…

Whimbrel – Stanwood, WA

Big March – Week 4 – the Final Push

Let’s recap. The goal was to find at least 200 species in the State of Washington in the Month of March. Although March has 31 days, I would be limited to birding only through March 27th as spouse Cindy was having knee replacement surgery on March 28th and I would be taking on care giver duties that would require me being home. Week 3 ended with 191 species with the LONG BILLED DOWITCHERS that I had seen at the 12th Street Marsh in Everett. Earlier I had been on trips to Eastern Washington (6 counties), west to the Coast, across the Sound to Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam Counties, to Clark County carrying on to Klickitat County, to the Waterville Plateau, the Okanogan and Chelan counties and many trips in near by King, Snohomish and Skagit counties. There had been some good finds but way too many misses. I had downgraded earlier expectations of 220 species or more to at least just getting over 200 and hopefully 205, maybe 210. My efforts were now down to trying to find single new species here or there, another trip to Eastern Washington and then counting on a weekend trip to the Coast that would include a pelagic trip on March 26. That trip should certainly produce at least 9 new species, so ok I would get over 200 species – maybe 205 but 210 seemed remote.

To start Week 4, on March 22nd, I went to Frager Road in South King County looking for CLIFF SWALLOWS that had been reported there and that were just coming back into Washington. When I got there a number of swallows were swooping overhead. I could immediately identify TREE and VIOLET GREEN SWALLOWS but could not find a CLIFF SWALLOW. Then all the swallows disappeared down river. A few minutes later they returned apparently finding more insects. This time there were more and what was clearly a CLIFF SWALLOW flew right over me and then swerved off to the right. It came back over me – or maybe it was a second one as the first one had seemed to fly further away. In any event, that was species 192 – a step closer. I returned to the nearby 212th Street Ponds where I had had some success to start the month – again looking for swallows – this time hopefully a NORTHERN ROUGH WINGED SWALLOW. I had 23 species but only one of them was a swallow species – 2 VIOLET GREEN SWALLOWS.

There was neither time nor inclination to travel further afield. I had already resigned myself to being satisfied with anything over 200 species. I stopped again – probably the 4th time during March at a local park where I know there are BARRED OWLS. No owls. The consolation prize was a picture of an ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRD on its tiny nest.

Anna’s Hummingbird on Nest – Pine Ridge Park

Without much effort I had seen 40 species that day but only the CLIFF SWALLOW was new – and yet again two misses. Were it not for the pelagic trip I would be in a panic, but my most recent weather check for Westport looked OK, so I was OK also. I had not originally planned another trip to Eastern Washington this week but with too many sage habitat misses on the previous trip, I modified project plans and headed East again on the 24th targeting SAGE THRASHER, BREWER’S and VESPER SPARROWS, BLACK NECKED STILT, PRAIRIE FALCON, WHITE THROATED SWIFT and OSPREY. A clean sweep would bring me to the very edge of the goal – 199 species. That was a real long shot but I felt that at least 3 and probably 4 species were pretty well assured.

Wind in Kittitas County in March is almost a certainty – heavy wind is always possible. So is really heavy wind. On the 24th I had both heavy and really heavy wind. At a couple of stops, I could barely open the car door it blew so hard. As I had before, I first went to the sagebrush along Durr Road south of Ellensburg. Even with the wind I heard the fairly nondescript song of a VESPER SPARROW and was able to walk in close enough for a photo. Later I heard the insect like buzzy song of a BREWER’S SPARROW. I could see a couple ducking into cover from the wind in a sagebrush and then flying off to more cover in another sagebrush but no chance for photos of these guys. So I had 2 new species in less than 15 minutes of birding (granted after 2 hours of driving to get there) – maybe the wind would not be as much of a problem as I thought.

Vesper Sparrow – Durr Road

Before hitting the sagebrush areas along Old Vantage Highway, I went to Helen McCabe Park where Deb Essman had given me the heads up that an OSPREY had returned to its platform nest there. There he/she was right on the platform where it was supposed to be. Three down and hopefully 2 or 3 or 4 more to go.

Osprey – Helen McCabe Park, Ellensburg

But hopefully doesn’t mean actually, and actually the rest of the day was a total wind-aided zero. No GOLDEN EAGLE or PRAIRIE FALCON before getting to the Old Vantage sage. At the Quilomene I had another VESPER SPARROW but nothing else and especially no SAGE THRASHER which I had counted on. No WHITE THROATED SWIFTS at Frenchman Coulee and no BLACK NECKED STILTS at County Line Ponds or at Gloyd Seeps Wetland. No, no, and another no. The good news was that I was at 195 species. The bad news was that the number was not bigger. However, the really bad news was when I checked my email that evening and found that the pelagic trip on Saturday had been canceled due to projected high winds. Making it worse I got the news about the cancelation too late to cancel my hotel reservation in Westport for the following night. If, and it was a big if, the weather improved AND enough people could change plans and commit to it, the pelagic trip would be rescheduled to Sunday the 27th. 195 species had seemed so close, now it was seeming not close enough at all. There were still birds that might be added at the Coast and a SPOTTED SANDPIPER was being seen regularly at Billy Frank Jr. NWR (Nisqually) which was on the way to the coast. There were two options: go to the coast as planned on the 25th but just for the day with no pelagic the next day; OR go to the coast on Saturday, spend the night and hope that the pelagic would in fact happen on Sunday the 27th. I decided to go ahead on the 25th figuring that if the pelagic was canceled, I would know where I stood after hopefully adding some new species on that day and then could use the 26th and 27th to go wherever necessary to add the number of new species needed to at least get to 200.

Choosing the coast on the 25th turned out to be a good plan. With help form Jon Anderson, I was able to locate the SPOTTED SANDPIPER after a long hike out to the viewing platform near McCallister Creek at Nisqually. I then went to the Ocean Shores side of the coast driving the open beach all the way from below the Casino to Copalis Beach. The tide was low again and for the first few miles the only birds I saw were crows, gulls, BALD EAGLES, DUNLIN and SANDERLINGS – the latter by the thousands. I had chosen this approach because I remembered that the area heading north and especially nearing Copalis Beach for some reason had been particularly good for SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS – a top target.

Sanderling – Open Beach Below Copalis Beach
One of the Bald Eagles Scavenging on the Open Beach

About a mile below Copalis Beach – which is the furthest north you can drive on the open beach, I saw a larger shorebird ahead at the water’s edge – the only larger shorebird I saw on any of my open beach trips this year. It was a much welcomed MARBLED GODWIT – a species I had expected but missed, perhaps through my own poor planning, on my visit to Tokeland earlier. This was species 197 for the month. I was a happy camper. Would there be another happy moment ahead?

Marbled Godwit – South of Copalis Beach

Continuing north I saw a small flock of shorebirds foraging and running quickly on the sand ahead. There was one that from that distance looked different than the others which were all SANDERLINGS. It was a small plover. Unfortunately as I approached I saw that it was a SNOWY PLOVER. Now it should never be disappointing to find a SNOWY PLOVER, but I was looking for its cousin, a SEMIPALMATED PLOVER. I need not have worried as a minute later another group of small plover like birds scurried ahead of me. As the bands on their chests made clear, this was them, a group of perhaps two dozen SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS. And just in time, as the boundary of the area where driving was allowed was less than 150 yards ahead. Just in the nick of time.

Semipalmated Plover – Copalis Beach

The MARBLED GODWIT and the SEMIPALMATED PLOVER were both on my initial “sure thing” list and missing them on earlier forays had been a major disappointment and frustration. I was now at 198 species and confident that even if the pelagic was not able to go on the 27th, I would find a way to get at least two more species. That confidence was bolstered when I was able to find a pair of SURFBIRDS foraging at the very tip of the Point Brown Jetty. Now at 199 for the month, I searched my online birding sites to see if there was maybe another species to chase and get to 200 and rest in peace. I could not find any sure things or even likely prospects so I went home – missed again on BARRED OWL at a local park – and waited for news on the pelagic trip. It came that night – almost everyone had been able to change plans to depart on Sunday and most importantly the weather looked really good. We were a go!!

I was not about to pay for another motel room and head back to the coast on Saturday so decided to leave very early (by 3:00 a.m.) on Sunday morning. With the pressure off and that early start ahead, I put the camera and binoculars away on Saturday, helped Cindy get ready for “life after surgery” and even took a long nap.

Sunday March 27th – Crossing the bar and crossing the goal line. As I boarded the Monte Carlo on Float 10, our boat for the pelagic trip, there were a number of familiar faces – spotters Scot, Ryan and Gene, Captain Phil and First Mate Chris and a number of the younger birders who are taking over from us old timers -excellent birders with young eyes and ears and already impressive state lists. I noticed two of them wearing ear patches as precautions against sea sickness and only then realized that I had not even thought about taking my usual Dramamine that morning. I have been on about 20 pelagic trips and have had only momentary nausea, not real sea sickness, and that only once. But I have always taken something preventive before boarding in the past. This would not be a good time to find out if such precautions were necessary. As it turned out, there was no need to worry, as although it was foggy and gray, the winds were almost nonexistent and the seas were as calm as any I can remember. Generally it is while crossing the bar right at the start of the trip that is the roughest. I hardly even noticed.

I had never been on a pelagic trip in March, with my earliest trips having been in mid to late April. Every pelagic trip is different with a few species almost certain to be seen on every trip and others more seasonal or just fluky. The truly pelagic birds are not usually found until deeper water is reached after 30 minutes or more but there are usually lots of MURRES and other ALCIDS, gulls and waterfowl seen early. This trip was eerily quiet with lots of fog and very few birds. I did not keep track of the order in which species were seen so I cannot say which species was number 200 for the month but fortunately after about an hour, we started seeing more birds including the ones that were targets for me and the reason I had counted so heavily on this pelagic trip. In no particular order after that first hour or so we encountered the following species that were new for the month: BLACK LEGGED KITTIWAKE, ICELAND GULL, CASSIN’S AUKLET, PARAKEET AUKLET, and SOOTY and SHORT TAILED SHEARWATERS. And later in deeper waters we added FORK TAILED STORM PETRELS, BLACK FOOTED ALBATROSS, NORTHERN FULMAR, TUFTED PUFFIN and RED PAHALAROPE – eleven new species for the month and for the year. Some species were very close to the boat while others were further out. Some photos were missed but others were not too bad and I include a sampling below.

Black Legged Kittiwake
Fork Tailed Storm Petrel
Black Footed Albatross
Northern Fulmar
Parakeet Auklet
Tufted Puffin

Without question the prize of the trip was having many good looks at PARAKEET AUKLETS. I had seen them on other pelagic trips but they are uncommon at best and were lifers for many onboard. A total of 23 were seen. This species had been on my possible list in initial planning but I figured the odds were even lower than low. I also had LAYSAN and SHORT TAILED ALBATROSS on the list plus POMARINE JAEGER and MANX SHEARWATER- none seen this time. Even with these added possibilities though, I had figured it would be a good trip with 8 or 9 new species and an excellent one with more. After the initial cancellation, that number had dropped to zero so this was an outstanding trip indeed.

And yes, I got to 200 species and then blew right past it. If I kept the GOLDEN EAGLE on the list, the total for the month would be 210 – fewer than initially projected but very good after so many early misses. Now I could give my full attention to care giver duties for Cindy without concern about “just one more” species needed.

Cindy’s surgery went very well and she was immediately off on a “rock star” recovery – the term used by her physical therapist who saw her the day after surgery. Good friend Kathleen Gunn had been a caregiver after Cindy’s first knee surgery back in 2019 when our courtship was still young and I had not yet moved in. She had volunteered to help again this time, and as Cindy continued to improve and was walking without aid after the second day, we arranged for Kathleen to take over on March 30th enabling me to take yet another trip to Eastern Washington to add species missed earlier that were now arriving in force. On the 29th when out walking our black lab, Chica, I finally saw a RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD, perhaps the most surprising miss so far.

On the 30th, I forgot about Durr Road and went directly to the Quilomene area on Old Vantage Highway. Again it was super windy and the birds were not out in numbers, but I did have BREWER’S and SAGEBRUSH SPARROWS and finally a SAGE THRASHER. It was singing, thankfully, but perhaps because of the wind it never came closer in response to playback which is their usual reaction. Rather than continue east I back tracked to Interstate 82 nd headed south to the Selah Canyon Rest Area where by this time of year, there were ALWAYS some WHITE THROATED SWIFTS. Again super windy and at first I did not find any birds at all. Then zooming by lower than usual, 2 swifts flew by – swiftly indeed.

Brewer’s Sparrow

Of all my earlier misses, the ones that had been the most surprising and disappointing were the SAGE THRASHER and BLACK NECKED STILTS. In years past I had always found them by now. With the SAGE THRASHER now checked off, the STILT was the remaining nemesis. Although they were probably now at the County Line Ponds in Grant County, I felt it much more likely to find them at Kerry’s Pond in Grainger where they had been reported by others the previous week. When I first got to the Pond, I did not see any STILTS. It is not a gigantic pond, but if they are across the pond or tucked it behind some grass, they can be difficult to see. The first ones I spotted were on the shoreline across the pond – good enough for a check but not a good photo. Then I spotted another closer and then more at the eastern end of the pond – 8 altogether and my month list was up to a much more respectable 214. It was a little past noon. I checked in with Cindy and Kathleen and all was good. It would mean coming home a little later but I bargained for more time and headed over to Bethel Ridge Road hoping for “just a few more”.

Black Necked stilt – Kerry’s Pond

An hour later around 1:15 I started up the dirt road. This has always been a great birding place for me – and everyone else. Over the years I have had more than 100 species there including SOOTY GROUSE, COMMON POORWILL, BLACK SWIFT, CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD, NORTHERN GOSHAWK, FLAMMULATED OWL, 8 species of WOODPECKER, 10 species of FLYCATCHER, and 8 species of THRUSH and much more. Of course many of those were much later in the year so my hopes were limited to SOOTY GROUSE, a woodpecker or two and maybe a TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE. Other possibilities were HOUSE WREN (early) and CHIPPING SPARROW and NORTHERN GOSHAWK if I was super super lucky.

This location deserves several hours of combined driving and hiking but I only had a little over an hour at best, so I concentrated on a couple of areas where I had had WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKERS regularly and then driving as far up as I could before hitting snow hoping to flush a grouse or maybe find a SOLITAIRE. I found a WILLIAMSON’S SAPSUCKER at one of the go to spots – near the upper corral and heard the “waah” call of a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER a little further down the road. I tracked it uphill and got only a distant look and heard some drumming before it flew even further uphill. I also heard at least two TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRES singing along the road.

Townsend’s Solitaire – Bethel Ridge Road

[I was not able to get a photo of the woodpeckers, but as sometimes happens in the world of birding, a week later I was able to get a photo of a RED NAPED SAPSUCKER as one was discovered at Lake Ballinger about 4 miles from my home in Edmonds – my first in Snohomish County. It was much more cooperative so I am including that photo.]

Red Naped Sapsucker – Lake Ballinger

The three species added at Bethel Ridge brought me to 217 and I knew there was one more opportunity – one I saved both as a fun final addition but also held in reserve in case I had gotten to 199 and needed just one more. Friends Neil and Carleen Zimmerman have had WESTERN SCREECH OWLS nesting in their backyard in nearby Brier, WA for several years. They arrive sometime in March and at least one is generally visible poking its head out of the nest box just after dusk. On March 31, I joined several other local birders for the Zimmerman Owl show. Great fun conversation and the climax was the appearance of the little owl just after 7:00 pm.

Western Screech Owl – Brier, WA

I have decided to not count the GOLDEN EAGLE for the month, so the final count ended at 217 and with thanks to the little SCREECH OWL, the month ended on a high note. The basic project had been successful if not necessarily expertly managed. More than anything there was a sense of relief. There are always ups and downs, but there had just been too many downs this month. Perhaps missed birds, missed photos, and tough weather had taken too much fun out of the experience or maybe I am changing and need different kinds of projects in the future. As I now have reached 200 or more species in Washington for every month January through May, I will give it at least one more try to find out. It cannot be this June as Cindy and I will be in Ecuador. Maybe I will give it a shot in August or September. If all goes well, I will try to get 200 for every other month as well. If not… well there’s always another project somewhere.

[Postscript: If I were undertaking this project again, I would make some changes having learned from this experience – which by the way is a good reason to do a project in the first place – learning, improving, getting better. First I would have been in the Okanogan earlier. I think even two days might have made a difference finding some of the species. Second, I would have planned to visit the southernmost Washington Counties later in the month. A number of migrants returned to Washington the last week of March but only in Clark, Klickitat or Cowlitz Counties. Third, I would have tried to go to Walla Walla a little later as well – for the same reason. Easy to say of course as there were two critical constraints that would have affected those plans – Cindy’s surgery and the pelagic trip. Even so I would have tried for those adjustments. Finally, if it was a REALLY BIG number that I was shooting for, I would have birded every day and spent extra days away from home – working areas where there were maybe two or three new possibilities instead of only one. With some of those adjustments, I am sure I could have added at least 5 additional species and with some luck and better birding on my part I think I could have (should/would have?) added 13 and gotten to 230. And if absolutely everything fell into place and someone much more skilled than I went all out, I think 250 is a possibility.]

Big March – Part III – Week 3 – A Critical Trip East

Whether it is a Big March or Big January or Big February or a Big Year or just birding in Washington, a highlight is always a trip to Walla Walla County and vicinity joining Mike and MerryLynn Denny for an entertaining day filled with birds, Natural History, stories, insights and more stories – and hopefully more birds. In planning my Big March adventure, an essential part was to be a multi-day trip to Eastern Washington that included time with the Denny’s and visits to the Shrub/Steppe/Sagebrush of Kittitas County and other areas in counties in between. The list of targets was big – more than 25 targets were on my list and 30 was an outside possibility. After the trip with luck, I should have well over 180 species in hand and maybe 190. Another early start and I was on the road before 6:00 a.m.

Great birder friend Deb Essman had been following my Big March from before its start keeping me up on sightings in her Kittitas County including the arrival of sagebrush birds. She had a nesting GREAT HORNED OWL and a friend had been seeing a BARRED OWL regularly. I had hoped for both but learned that the BARRED OWL had moved on. A first stop was at the bridge over the Cle Elum River near Bullfrog Pond. There was a possibility of good birds at the Pond but the main appeal was a likely AMERICAN DIPPER along the river where I have seen them maybe ten times. But not this time. And nothing at Bullfrog Pond either so I shifted to Plan B and headed for the bridge over the North Fork of the Teanaway River. There I quickly had two AMERICAN DIPPERS, undoubtedly a pair. I may have seen a quick copulation. So a good beginning even if it added some time and distance to the morning start.

American Dipper

Usually the arrival sequence for sage brush species is SAGEBRUSH SPARROW, then SAGE THRASHER, then BREWER’S SPARROW, then VESPER SPARROW and LARK SPARROW much later. LOGGERHEAD SHRIKES arrive sometime in the mix. My best place for BREWER’S SPARROW has been Durr Road just off Umptanum Road south of Ellensburg. It is also a great place for both WESTERN and MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS and WESTERN MEADOWLARK (all of which I had already seen) and possibly the other sage species. Hoping for the BREWER’s, I turned onto Durr Road and immediately was in sagebrush and also immediately had a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE. As usual it was very windy and there were fewer birds than usual – both BLUEBIRDS and some MEADOWLARKS but no sparrows.

Mountain Bluebird – Durr Road

Then it was on to Deb Essman’s home. We found a GREAT HORNED OWL buried in a tree in her yard – disappointing for photos but then Deb remembered the nest and we got a much better view and photo op of the owl perched nearby. We drove by some fields where GRAY PARTRIDGE were possible and went to a cliff where GOLDEN EAGLE is sometimes seen. We found neither so headed for the sagebrush along Old Vantage Highway, where our first stop was at a place I have noted on my Garmin GPS as “Awesome Deb’s Awesome Sage”. Well Deb might be awesome but on this day the sage wasn’t at least bird wise. Not a one – just lots of wind.

Great Horned Owl – Ellensburg

The next good go to area for sage species area was at the corrals at Whiskey Dick/Quilomene. We heard not a sound as we hiked up into the hills. I have had SAGE THRASHER here and at Deb’s Awesome Sage spot every year and usually by this time. Maybe it was the wind, maybe just bad luck but nothing – until I heard a somewhat familiar song and found a solitary SAGEBRUSH SPARROW not too far from the corrals/entry. It is one of my favorite sparrows and this has been the best place for me to find them.

Sagebrush Sparrow – Quilomene

I carried on alone to Gingko State Park in Vantage, specifically to Recreation Road where I was hoping for a ROCK WREN all the time keeping my eyes open for GRAY PARTRIDGE or PRAIRIE FALCONS – both possibilities. Not unlike times in the past, it was easy to locate a calling ROCK WREN near the Rocky Coulee Boat Launch, but unlike those times, the WREN would not come in close, choosing to remain atop the cliff, perhaps sheltered in the wind. The WREN was the 5th new species for the day, but I had been expecting a BREWER’S SPARROW and a SAGE THRASHER, hoped for a PRAIRIE FALCON and earlier had thought a BARRED OWL was a good bet.

Decision time again. One option was to return to Interstate 90, cross the Columbia and try for WHITE THROATED SWIFT at FRENCHMAN COULEE, possibly finding a YELLOW HEADED BLACKBIRD nearby at Silica Ponds. Neither had been reported recently but it is an area that is not heavily birded so maybe there but unseen. Anyway I felt that both species could be seen elsewhere later. The second option was to head southeast to the Tri-Cities where two really good species had been reported recently – a NORTHERN MOCKINGBIRD on Snively Road in West Richland and a HARRIS’S SPARROW coming to a feeder in Pasco. I knew Frenchman Coulee and Silica Ponds well. I had no clue about the other spots. Nonetheless I opted for the latter as they were tougher birds to find and on the way to other places I wanted to hit that day.

It was a good choice. The MOCKINGBIRD was calling from a Russian Olive near a marsh that had hundreds of very noisy SANDHILL CRANES. I am often amazed at how noisy MOCKINGBIRDS can be and yet they can be buried in thick growth and essentially invisible – until they decide to come out and then perch conspicuously in the open. This fellow never made that decision remaining buried. On to Vic Hubbard’s home in Pasco. I did not know Vic but got his phone number from Phil Bartley, a great birder and acquaintance in the area. Vic gave great directions and said to drop by anytime. He was working on some projects but would come out if he could. He came out as soon as I arrived and we had a great visit, The visit included super appearances by the adult HARRIS’S SPARROW has visited his feeder for several months. He also had a juvenile, but I did not see that one while I was there.

Harris’s Sparrow – Pasco Washington

Vic also got me in touch with Bill and Nancy LaFramboise who had recently seen FERRUGINOUS HAWK on 9 Mile Canyon Road, a key stop later that day. First I headed to Dodd Road near Burbank, WA hoping for YELLOW HEADED and TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS, a BROWN HEADED COWBIRD and especially BARN OWLS in their hillside roost. It was only 20 miles away. Along the way I stopped to scope some large white blobs I saw in the Columbia River – my first AMERICAN WHITE PELICANS of the month. Along Dodd Road, there were hundreds of black birds coming in to the cattle feed lots. I tried to shift through them as they moved back and forth. I was only able to identify RED WINGED BLACKBIRDS and EUROPEAN STARLINGS. I could easily have missed TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS but would have noticed YELLOW HEADED BLACKBIRDS – I did not. Fortunately further up Dodd Road there was at least one BARN OWL in one of the hillside roosting holes. In years past there have always been more than that. I learned later that they have been harassed by kids throwing rocks – aargh!!

Barn Owl – Dodd Road – Still White Balance Camera Issues

There are multiple spots on 9 Mile Canyon Road where FERRUGINOUS HAWKS have historically nested. Bill and Nancy had seen a pair on the distant nesting platform up a gulley not far up the road. I checked there first. There was no nest and there were no hawks. I drove further in and was fortunate to have a pair fly right over me a few miles in. They are really unmistakable – large almost eagle like hawks with long wings and striking coppery color and a white chest (light morphs). The view was too quick and car constrained for me to get a decent picture, but I love this hawk so am including one from the same area that I took a couple of years ago – quite possibly one of the same birds.

Ferruginous Hawk – 9 Mile Canyon Road

I backtracked west about 8 miles to Madame Dorion Park looking for a TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE that had been reported there recently. No luck and it was then after 4:00 pm. I would be out all day with the Dennys the next day so opted to head to Walla Walla where I would spend the night. A recurring theme the past week or so had been the up and down analysis and assessment of how I was doing. I had added 10 species that day including some very good ones, but I had also missed some that I frankly thought had been sure things. The species count was at 177 and there were high hopes for the next two days but the misses were nagging at me and I knew I could easily have been at 185 species or more if…if…if…

Day 16. I had sent a list of probable targets to MerryLynn ahead of the trip – birds that were within a far ranging area including some in Walla Walla, Franklin and Columbia counties. I had already seen a couple – FERRUGUINOUS HAWK and BARN OWL – but had missed YELLOWHEADED and TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS so we started heading off again to the feedlots. Unlike the previous day, there were NO birds there. Probably would be there later but we had to move on. A top target was LONG EARED OWL. There are a couple of dense stands of Russian Olives where we generally find them. However, Mike said there had been some clearing and some harassment and the owls were not a sure thing. What is a sure thing, however, is that if there owls, the keen eyes of Mike and MerryLynn will find them. At our first stop we found a single owl buried so deep that all that was visible was a little bit of its body. Countable if desperate – which I was not quite yet – but hardly satisfying.

We continued on towards another stand of Olives on Smith Springs Road. A few years back on one of the Dennys’ Annual Owls by Day trips we had 7 LONG EARED OWLS in this spot. Before getting there we added the first new species for a day when MerryLynn called out a group of 8 RING NECKED PHEASANTS in a field. This species is found all through the state but many of the observations reported on Ebird are birds that were most likely released by Fish and Game for the hunters. No way to tell wild from “farm raised” but chances are much greater for the former in areas like this. At our Russian Olive stand, the keen eyes came into play and picked out two LONG EARED OWLS that I doubt I would have seen on my own. One was very low to the ground and was perfectly camouflaged. I could not get my camera to focus through the thick branches so I am including a photo from the same stand of trees on a previous trip – still somewhat buried but recognizable.

Long Eared Owl – Smith Springs Road

Further along Smith Springs Road we stopped at a woodlot where AMERICAN TREE SPARROW was a possibility. We saw no birds at all. Then at a second stop there was one SONG and 8 WHITE CROWNED SPARROWS and a LESSER GOLDFINCH. Just as we were leaving, I saw another sparrow fly into brush further back and heard it sing a single time. I am not familiar with the songs of the AMERICAN TREE SPARROW but this song was different than other sparrow songs I knew. To go look for it we would have had to tromp through some brush, so we did not. When I got back to the car I played the AMERICAN TREE SPARROW song and it was a match. MerryLynn said she had heard it as well. I debate whether to count “heard only” species. No trouble if they are familiar or if when testing against recordings, there is no doubt. I had no doubt and with MerryLynn’s confirmation, it made it on to the list hoping I would get well past 200 species and not have to rely on it to get there. I also had felt cheated in the Okanogan to miss this species so was motivated.

BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERONS can be found in Western Washington – but rarely. I have always been able to add them to my lists on trips to the Walla Walla area – often seen from Ivarson Road – which was our next stop. Scoping the distant reeds, we saw 6 GREAT EGRETS, 8 GREAT BLUE HERONS and a single BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERON. If we had missed it there I would have tried the pond near the animal shelter in Tri-Cities where I had great looks last year – but fortunately not needed this time.

Now what? There were no places to go where a targeted bird was guaranteed. We elected to try for LONG BILLED CURLEWS on Lambdin Road where I had them on a similar trip with the Dennys in April 2020 and where they are seen each year. The Dennys did not know if they were in yet, but it was worth a try. They were not in – but as an aside, they did arrive two days later – seen by the Dennys after I had departed. We also tried for CASPIAN TERNS that had been seen in the river but we failed to find any. Again, now what? There was a chance for three new species if we headed up into the Blue Mountains on Coppei Creek Road. NORTHERN PYGMY OWLS are regular there and MerryLynn had TOWNSEND’S SOLITAIRE there recently. It was also a good spot for GOLDEN EAGLE.

Playing by now a somewhat familiar theme, our birding in the mountains was very very slow. Several WILD TURKEYS, a HAIRY WOODPECKER, some JUNCOES, a couple of hawks and no owls. At a likely spot we watched a large raptor sail briefly over a ridge. Its wings were up in a slight dihedral and we had a good enough look to know it was not a TURKEY VULTURE but it was very far off and we could not get a scope on it as it was visible only briefly. The consensus was that it was a GOLDEN EAGLE and in fact when first seen, Mike had called it out as such. I decided to put it on the “tentative” list hoping I would see another one later and make it moot. That was the only new species for that part of the trip – tentatively.

We had covered a lot of ground and found 4 or maybe 5 new species. I had hoped for 8 to 10, so a disappointing birding day but fun as always with Mike and MerryLynn. Mike knows the history of every town and maybe every farm and ranch in the area, There are nonstop stories and copious information. A few more species and I would have called it a super day – guess I will settle for just a great day instead. I was due to meet with Jason Fidorra in the Tri-Cities the next day so had elected to change motels to one in Kennewick. After saying my goodbyes I made one last birding stop for the day and walked the Quail Trail at the McNary NWR Headquarters. In a little over 30 minutes I had 24 species with the prize for me being a single YELLOW HEADED BLACKBIRD – first hearing its distinctive call and then getting a photo as it perched at the end of some reeds. This was the 5th or 6th new species for the day bringing me to 182 or 183. Still behind schedule but I knew the next day would produce at least one new species, would be great fun, and there was the promise of more.

Yellow Headed Blackbird – Quail Trail at McNary NWR Headquarters

I had gotten Jason Fidorra’s contact information from Vic Hubbard. Jason is a Wildlife Biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and runs a BURROWING OWL program. Volunteering to help him with some burrow maintenance provided me an opportunity to meet him, learn from him and also to see some BURROWING OWLS. The work part was easy and the return was way more than worth it. Jason is easy going, knowledgeable, and I know it is irrelevant, but also really good looking. We spent a couple of hours at the Tri-Cities Airport and saw at least 4 and maybe as many as 6 BURROWING OWLS. A big bonus was hearing and then seeing at a distance a couple of LONG BILLED CURLEWS. It was interesting to see how the man made burrows were constructed to best protect the owls and to learn of their predation and also competition for burrows. Jason is himself an excellent birder but I think his real love may be mountaineering. Lots of stories.

Burrowing Owl – Tri-Cities Airport

A great start to the day, Saint Patrick’s Day, probably should have somehow included a GREEN HERON or at least a GREEN WINGED TEAL for the day, but I was in countdown mode looking for new species. I hoped to make up for TRICOLORED BLACKBIRD misses the past two days with success at Para Ponds maybe getting BLACK NECKED STILT as well. There was no STILT and only a few blackbirds in the area – none TRICOLORED. I debated going to County Line Ponds looking for STILTS but changed course and instead headed to Yakima and more specifically to BBQ Flats Horse Camp. I had had good luck with WHITE HEADED WOODPECKERS there and there had also been a report of EVENING GROSBEAKS.

When I got to BBQ Flats, the road was closed but I was able to park and hike in. Almost immediately I heard some chattering calls that I thought good be EVENING GROSBEAKS. The birds themselves were high up and very active. Finally a clear view confirmed the ID and there were lots of them all through the area. Not really good photo ops in poor light and still high in the branches but a much welcomed new species for the month. On my Ebird report I said there were 90 EVENING GROSBEAKS but there easily could have been twice that number. There was also a small group of RED CROSSBILLS, PYGMY and RED BREASTED NUTHATCHES, and some CASSIN’S FINCHES. I never heard or saw any, but I am sure there were MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES there as well.

Evening Grosbeak – BBQ Flats Horse Camp

My primary target was WHITE HEADED WOODPECKER though. I heard a distant PILEATED WOODPECKER. I heard and saw a couple of NORTHERN FLICKERS but for the first 50 minutes there and admittedly trying lots of playback, there were no woodpeckers with whiter heads. I had circled through the wooded area and was back on the closed road heading back to the car when finally I heard drumming that I thought was from my quarry. There is a high fence that blocks access to what I think is the northern part of the area. The drumming was coming from there. I could not go in but was able to get a distant view of a WHITE HEADED WOODPECKER drumming on one of the pines. Whew – that would have been a bad miss. Then as it sometimes happens, almost back to the car a pair of WHITE HEADED WOODPECKERS flew right overhead and landed just above me, calling and then drumming. Success!!

White Headed Woodpecker – BBQ Flats Horse Camp

It was about 2:20 pm and I was maybe 2 and a half hours from home. I could have tried for some sage birds again but figured I would just have to come back later in the month, so I called Cindy and said I would be home for dinner. The four new species that day were all good ones and brought my total to 187. There would be that pelagic trip on the 26th and some birding at the coast the day before that and maybe another trip to the sagebrush. 200 felt pretty secure. As with the other trips this month, there had been some misses and disappointments and the general reality is that that is almost always the case. Still, I had added 20 species in 3 long days. Back on track.

March 18 was an off day catching up after being gone for 3 days – well sort of. I did add a BROWN HEADED COWBIRD to get to 188. When I had first planned this assault, I noted that a mega rarity SIBERIAN ACCENTOR first seen in February 2020 had remained into March 2020 and thus made it onto my “possible” list. The WHOOPER SWAN seen on the first day of the project was equally rare now another mega-rarity made an appearance. On March 17th a mystery bird had shown up discovered by someone who knew it was something different but was not sure what. As a photo circulated it was determined to be a RED FLANKED BLUETAIL – possibly a first for Washington. Several birders had an early heads up and relocated it on the 18th. I got word of it early on March 19th and joined the hunt as it was less than ten miles from my home. It was crappy weather but with many eyes watching the BLUETAIL was refound and word traveled via text and phone. I joined at least a dozen birders who got quick views of it buried in plants at the backyard of a home near where it was originally found.

I had seen this species three times before: first at the Mai Po Marsh outside of Hong Kong in December 1979 – where this Eurasian bird belongs in the winter; next in a driving rain storm at Queen’s Park in British Columbia in January 2013; and most recently after a long drive to see it at Hell’s Gate in Lewiston, ID in January 2017. In Idaho I got fantastic looks and photos – definitely a contrast to seeing it on March 19 but this was a new state bird and number 189 for the month. The bird seemed to be very nervous and frankly I doubted it would remain long. I probably should have stayed and tried for a photo but figured if it stayed there would be other chances and I had such a great photo from Idaho, I left just happy to have seen it as I had other things to attend to that day as well. It was definitely a bonus bird and with the pelagic trip ahead I had stopped worrying about 200 and had long ago figured that 220 would not be reachable. Maybe the fire in my belly had subsided.

Red Flanked Bluetail – from Idaho

Without another trip to Eastern Washington, there really was nowhere to go where there was even a chance for multiple new species. The plan was to try for a species a day for a couple of days, make another trip East the next week and then hit the Coast on the 25th, stay over that night and do the pelagic trip on the 26th. If all went well I should end up around 205 or maybe even 210 species – past the minimum to be happy but still well below the larger goal. A YELLOW BILLED LOON had been reported daily at Potlatch State Park in Mason County. There was really no good quick way to get there. As a crow flies it was probably less than 60 miles but having to drive around the South Sound and or Hood Canal, it was a 2.5 hour trip over 100 miles. I did find the YELLOW BILLED LOON – distant scope views only – but in retrospect it was a long slow haul for a single bird. If I had planned better I would have incorporated a try for a MOUNTAIN QUAIL but that would have required an even earlier start and since I had abandoned hope for a Really Big BIG MARCH, I was happy to go for one at a time.

Week three was coming to an end and there was one more singleton new bird to try for. LONG BILLED DOWITCHERS had been seen at the 12th Street Marsh just north of the Everett Sewage Ponds in Snohomish County. This species was on my presumed easy list for the month figuring I would see them at Wylie Slough or elsewhere in Skagit County or if not then somewhere at or near the Coast. As it turned out my calculation had been wrong and there had only been three observations of the species in Washington prior to March 20 – a single bird at Wylie Slough in Skagit County on March 5th – 3 in Whatcom County on March 12th and a small flock at the same 12th Street Marsh on March 1st. Although I had birded near there many times, I had never been to the spot, so even if I missed the DOWITCHERS on the 21st, I figured it would be good to know about the location. As an aside, that is one of the benefits of doing a targeted project. You have to pay attention to observations on your “needs list” as they come in with resulting chases that are often to new areas. My project planning included many trips to areas that I was familiar with and knew I could usually count on certain species there, but mixed in were visits to new places – like Potlatch State Park, the Tri-Cities Airport and now the 12th Street Marsh that would become additions to familiar turf – places to be revisited in the future.

As soon as I got over a small rise next to the parking area at the 12th Street Marsh I saw a group of 24 LONG BILLED DOWITCHERS feeding in the mud and a VIRGINIA RAIL called. I only had 11 species in the brief time I was there but liked the habitat and expect it would produce more species and more shorebirds later in the year and I expect to be back.

Long Billed Dowitchers – 12th Street Marsh Everett

Thus ended the third week of Big March. There had been lots of miles, lots of birds although fewer than hoped for, and the count was at 191. With Cindy’s surgery set for the 28th there would only be 6 more days of birding, but one would be again at the Coast and another would be the pelagic trip. Those two days should easily add the needed 9 species and I would probably go to Eastern Washington again where I should add at least 3 or 4 more species. I had to lower my expectations and realized that without the pelagic trip, I could be in trouble. I checked the 10 day forecast and it looked decent for the 26th in Westport. I needed that trip to be a go.

Big March 2022 – Part II – Another Week of Project Management

It was now March 7th and I had 123 species – less than 20% of the month gone and more than 61% of the needed species found. BUT after that initial 1000 batting average on the first part of Day 1 for the important targets, I was now hovering around 50%. If the trend continued or yikes went further down, 200 could be in trouble. I had signed up for a Pelagic Trip out of Westport for March 26th and I was now looking on that trip as important money in the bank – promising at least 6 and probably more species. Day 7 would be going to an important different habitat as I continued to follow the plan I had initially designed – take the ferry from Edmonds to Kingston and continuing north on the Olympic Peninsula birding in Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam Counties.

The key targets for my trip were a LESSER BLACK BACKED GULL in Sequim, an EARED GREBE at Port Gamble and an ANCIENT MURRELET somewhere in Port Townsend. My first new species was a CALIFORNIA GULL at the Kingston ferry terminal and then despite a less than favorable tide, I had some BONAPARTE’S GULLS at Point No Point where there are often hundreds of these lovely little gulls. Somewhat early VIOLET GREEN SWALLOWS flew over and CALIFORNIA SCRUB JAYS which are now regular there also obliged with an appearance. Early in my birding life I had seen a very rare ARCTIC LOON at Port Gamble but in more recent years, I had driven through the area (v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y with its 25 mph limit) on my way to other birding spots. This time I made the stop and was fortunately able to pick out the single EARED GREBE among the 15 or so HORNED GREBES. It was 9:30 a.m. and I had added 5 species – so far so good.

On to Sequim where a LESSER BLACK BACKED GULL had been seen regularly for more than two months either at Maple View Farm (where I had seen it earlier in January) or at the lagoon near the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. I did not see it at the farm and then went to the north area of the lagoon and hiked in from Marlyn Nelson Park where I got only a distant scope view after much searching. I then went to another vantage point at the south end only to see the gull fly back north after a brief good look. Altogether that took over an hour – more than expected but definitely ok for a really good species even without a photo.

Lesser Black Backed Gull – Picture at Maple View Farm on Roof in February by John Mendoza

On the way to 3 Crabs in Sequim I found my first MOURNING DOVES of the month and some GREATER WHITE FRONTED GEESE, another first. At 3 Crabs itself I found only some SANDERLINGS where other shorebirds could have been possibilities and where LONG TAILED DUCKS had been seen recently. I then went to Railroad Bridge Park expecting to find an AMERICAN DIPPER which is regular there – but no such luck adding only a CHESTNUT BACKED CHICKADEE. I planned to end the trip back tracking to two spots at Port Townsend hoping for some alcids. Along the way I had my first and somewhat early TURKEY VULTURE. Hundreds of alcids had been seen in Port Townsend in earlier weeks. This day there were almost none – a single, and appreciated MARBLED MURRELET, hundreds of RHINOCEROS AUKLETS – and maybe 10 PIGEON GUILLEMOTS. The MARBLED MURRELET was new but I had high hopes for its fancier and rarer cousin, an ANCIENT MURRELET. I considered the long way home taking the ferry from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island, but the schedule was wrong and day was already long. Leaving Port Townsend I had a flyby COOPER’S HAWK.

Rhinoceros Auklets – Port Townsend

I should have been pretty happy with the day adding 13 species and finding two or three main targets, but missing the ANCIENT MURRELET and AMERICAN DIPPER left a sour taste which was made worse when I later remembered that a BLUE JAY had been reported regularly in Port Townsend – just blocks from where I had been and then saw that Bob Boekelheide had relocated the very rare DICKCISSEL within a mile of where I had been in Sequim. Had I checked current Ebird reports while in the area, I might have found both species. The trouble with a “Big” anything is that the misses resonate harder and longer than the successes. End of Day 7 – 136 species found.

Day 8 would be another different habitat, my first trip to the Coast (Pacific Ocean) for 2022. On most trips to the Coast, I either focus on the area south of Aberdeen down to Westport and Tokeland or the area west of Aberdeen including Hoquiam and Ocean Shores. There is some overlap between the two habitats but also some significant differences. The Hoquiam STP just west of Aberdeen can be good for shorebirds and ducks and some passerines. The jetty at Ocean Shores is easier to bird and is better for Rockpipers than the jetty at Westport and the open beach there is often better for SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS. Later in the year, Ocean Shores including Bill’s Spit and the Game Range will be better for many shorebirds. On the other hand the open beach south of Westport is generally better for SNOWY PLOVERS and Tokeland further south is the only reliable spot in Washington for WILLETS and is often good for MARBLED GODWITS. Covering both spots is possible but means less time available at each and possible complications with the tides. I felt I had to try both and got off to an early start accordingly.

It would not be the last time that heavy winds and less than ideal tides would complicate matters. Overall the day proved disappointing despite some major successes and a big surprise. The big surprise was at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) where although I found a respectable 25 species, there were no shorebirds. There was a very responsive FOX SPARROW and a very surprising RED SHOULDERED HAWK. I had a RED SHOULDERED HAWK there once before – possibly my best view ever, but this was completely unexpected, a species that was on my target list for Clark County later.

Red Shouldered Hawk – Hoquiam STP Previously

When I got to Ocean Shores, I started to drive on the open beach just south of the Casino but the tide was low and the wind was fierce. There were a few gulls and mothing else so I retreated and headed directly to the Point Brown Jetty. The wind was no better there and waves were crashing over the rocks. This can be a great place for BLACK TURNSTONES, ROCK SANDPIPERS and SURFBIRDS. I have had all three of them within a couple feet of each other in the past. For quite a while all I could see were some gulls and crows. Then some shorebirds flew from the backside at the far end of the jetty to the front where they were visible to me – two obvious BLACK TURNSTONES with their distinctive black and white pattern and another shorebird that was about the same size or perhaps a bit smaller that was either a ROCK SANDPIPER or a SURFBIRD. It was only for a brief second or two as it landed on the rocks, but through my scope I could make it out as a ROCK SANDPIPER with a different bill shape, speckling and brighter legs. It was probably the first or second most important species to find on the trip, so I was very pleased. The BLACK TURNSTONE was new as well, but could readily be found in other places – usually.

I wanted to get to Tokeland and Grayland Beach on the other side of Grays Harbor so I did not return to the open beach and headed back east and then south. When I arrived at Tokeland, I was again a bit dismayed by the wind and tide. Often WILLETS are easily seen right at the marina before getting to the fishing pier and MARBBLED GODWITS are across the little cove on a spit of land. It took a little longer to find them this time, but I located a group of 13 WILLETS in the grass at the northwest end of the cove. Unfortunately no MARBLED GODWITS were in view. There are usually numerous WESTERN GREBES further out in the bay sometimes joined by a CLARK’S GREBE. I found only two WESTERN GREBES this time – both quite distant.

Willet – Tokeland Marina

On the way out of Tokeland to head back north to Grayland, I passed through a small flock of GREATER WHITE FRONTED GEESE. There often seem to be these geese at Tokeland. They are not rare but can easily be missed. What I did not do was check Graveland Spit halfway up the Tokeland Peninsula. When the MARBLED GODWITS are not in the Marina, they can often be found there. User error – I simply forgot to check. Instead I went directly to Midway Beach near Grayland looking for shorebirds – especially SNOWY PLOVERS.

Greater White Fronted Goose – Tokeland

There were surprisingly few birds on the beach – lots of SANDERLINGS as expected but the only other species were a few gulls, a PEREGRINE FALCON, and fortunately 5 SNOWY PLOVERS. In my planning I had expected MARBLED GODWITS and SEMIPALMATED PLOVERS for sure. I was grateful for the SNOWIES but was already wondering how to make up for the others.

A Very Mean Looking Snowy Plover – Grayland Beach

It was a hard day to assess – definitely some missed shorebirds, but the RED SHOULDERED HAWK was a major bonus and finding the SNOWY PLOVERS, BLACK TURNSTONES, ROCK SANDPIPER, and WILLETS were expected but still good finds. The seven new species for March brought me to 143, still behind schedule but still energized. The next day would again challenge that feeling.

Many TOWNSEND’S WARBLERS overwinter in the area. One was a regular at the feeder of good birding friend Steve Pink in Edmonds. Day 9 of Big March started with a visit to the feeder that quickly produced the targeted species as well as good conversation as Steve and wife Connie joined me for a bit. I then continued north trying again for species missed earlier in Skagit County.

Townsend Warbler – Edmonds Washington

I again started at Wylie Slough and this time had a little better luck adding TREE SWALLOW, GREATER YELLOWLEGS and VIRGINIA RAIL to the month list. I looked again unsuccessfully for GYRFALCON and PRAIRIE FALCON at Samish Flats and also tried again for LONG TAILED DUCK at the Samish Island Overlook. They were quite distant but they were there and I got a terrible photo as proof. Somehow making up for the earlier miss buoyed my spirits and I went home earl feeling good with now 148 species for the month.

Long Tailed Ducks – Samish Overlook

Day 10 was another relatively short day as I had obligations that meant I could not be out all day. It did not add a lot of new species but it added a lot of fun. It started with a successful chase of a RED BREASTED SAPSUCKER at a park in Lynnwood and then a failed search for BAND TAILED PIGEONS at an often reliable place in North Seattle. There was a big consolation prize however. The go to place was the feeder at the home of Dennis Paulson, a legendary naturalist, ornithologist and birder who among many others things has taught the Seattle Audubon Master Birder Class for over 20 (or maybe 30) years. A good friend and resource for all ID help, Dennis saw me outside and invited me in where I visited for more than a half hour with him and partner Netta Smith as we watched their feeder. No BAND TAILS but both forms of WHITE THROATED SPARROWS made an appearance together with great looks at another TOWNSEND”S WARBLER, finches, sparrows and a VARIED THRUSH among others. Birds are great; people are better; and great people who are great birders are the best. This was some of the best.

Red Breasted Sapsucker – Lynnwood
White Throated Sparrow – One of Two at Dennis Paulson’s Feeder
Varied Thrush – at Dennis Paulson’s Feeder

At nearby Magnuson Park I found a couple of CEDAR WAXWINGS and got better looks and some photos of CALIFORNIA GULLS which I had seen previously. I then returned to Edmonds to a favorite local park – Pine Ridge. No BARRED OWL but I added HUTTON’S VIREO and SHARP SHINNED HAWK. 5 new species for the day and now more than 75% to the target 200 at 153 species for the month. The next day was mostly a day off with only a brief visit to an Edmonds neighborhood where I did find BAND TAILED PIGEONS and a visit to the Edmonds Fishing Pier where I found BLACK TURNSTONES but not the targeted SURFBIRD.

Black Turnstone – Edmonds Fishing Pier

In my original project planning, I projected a trip to Clark County (one of the southern most counties in the state) as a go to place for RED SHOULDERED HAWK, GREAT EGRET, and SANDHILL CRANE all of which were certainly possible elsewhere as well as for WILSON’S SNIPE and CALIFORNIA SCRUBJAY – even more possible elsewhere but Clark County would be a safety backup. Additionally there had been reports of early LESSER YELLOWLEGS, SAVANNAH SPARROW, and COMMON YELLOWTHROAT – all on the hit list for the month but not yet reliable anywhere else. Depending on my energy level and timing, there was also the possibility of making it a really long day and continuing on to Klickitat County for ACORN and LEWIS’S WOODPECKER.

On March 12, I got a real early start and 3 hours later was at Ridgefield Refuge at 7:30 a.m. (As I said a real early start!) I very slowly made the drive around the auto loop at the river S Unit with several stops along the way. Immediately an AMERICAN KESTREL landed on the ground not 15 feet from my car. Would this be a harbinger of good things to come?

American Kestrel – Ridgefield NWR

All told it took over an hour and a half to travel under 5 miles – I could have walked the circuit just as fast but that is not permitted and would not have been nearly as successful (or as comfortable). The River S Unit is both wonderful and frustrating. The waterfowl especially are fantastic although often distant and challenging to see especially when constrained to your car. There are lots of other birds species as well – equally or more challenging with the “don’t get out of your car” constraints for most of the circuit. Nonetheless I was able to find 40 species – about evenly split between those that were water oriented and those that were not. It’s a good thing that I had seen WILSON’S SNIPE and RED SHOULDERED HAWK elsewhere, because I did not find them at Ridgefield. I usually have had GREAT EGRET there as well – but not this time. Fortunately, however, I was able to locate the LESSER YELLOWLEGS and COMMON YELLOWTHROAT and had a small group of SANDHILL CRANES.

Sandhill Cranes – Ridgefield NWR and Yes the White Balance Was Off

For several years a very rare for Washington SNOWY EGRET had been found regularly at the end of River Road – south and west of Ridgefield. It departed last year but the area was still good for GREAT EGRET and I did find one there as well as a SAVANNAH SPARROW and a RED SHOULDERED HAWK. Decision time. It was noon and Lyle in Klickitat County was about 85 miles away – not so bad but that would mean a 4+ hour drive to return home. It was the only reliable place for ACORN WOODPECKER and would also give me a LEWIS’S WOODPECKER making a trip later to Fort Simcoe or Oak Creek unnecessary. The weather was good – off I went.

The area around Balch Lake has been the go to place for ACORN WOODPECKER’S in Washington for years. Later it is also the best place for ASH THROATED FLYCATCHER. LEWIS’S WOODPERCKER are plentiful and easy to find – I had one within minutes of arriving in the area. ACORN WOODPECKER can be tougher. My best luck in the past couple of years had been at McClane Tuthill Road and it was productive again. I had three fly overhead and perch in a distant Live Oak – good enough to count and for a mediocre photo. Then I had more later.

Lewis’s Woodpecker – Lyle WA
Acorn Woodpecker – Lyle WA

Had I done a better job of planning I would have delayed the trip to Clark County for at least another 10 days and probably added an overnight somewhere to allow more time in and coming back from Klickitat County as a number of species arrived later in March migrating north. I also could have coordinated the trip with time in other good habitats returning from Klickitat County. Maybe next time – oh, wait there will NOT be a next time for a Big March!!! The trip had been long and productive qualitatively and quantitatively – adding 7 species to get to 161 for the month. I was torn between 161 sounding like a lot so far and 39 sounding like a lot still needed.

After the long day on the 12th, Day 13, a Sunday, was spent pretty close to home starting with a visit to Alki in West Seattle chasing a CLARK’S GREBE that had been seen in a large flock of WESTERN GREBES. Maybe I was at the wrong place but my view of the flock of grebes was very distant and often obscured by heavy waves in the wind. I counted at least 40 grebes and with 60X magnification could find the one that was “different” with a yellow/orange bill and barely visible white surrounding the eye. I then headed north to once more look for the GLAUCOUS GULL that every birder in the area except me had seen either at Log Boom Park or on light posts in Kenmore across from McDonald’s or Rite Aid or … or… I had looked for the gull at least ten times in February and March. There had been gulls on some light posts but none were GLAUCOUS. I had counted on seeing this bird as part of the Big March project. It almost didn’t happen but this turned out to be the day. Most recent reports had been from Log Boom Park itself so that is where I started. Not there but when I walked out along the docks to the north I could see a bunch of gulls on the roof of a shed at the boat repair shop a bit north. One of the gulls seemed right but it was mostly perched on the downside of the roof – affording only a partial view. When it moved slightly towards the crown of the roof, I could make it out better and was sure I had the target but really a frustrating view.

I drove to the repair shop and could see even more gulls on the formerly hidden side of the roof. The GLAUCOUS GULL was there in the open – until – the bastard flew off and maybe landed on the other side of the roof – now completely invisible to me. Literally a few moments later, a birding couple joined me looking for the gull. I told them they had just missed it and it might be back at Log Boom Park or just on the other side of the roof. Having finally seen it and being very tired of the chase, I left. They remained and I learned from their Ebird report later that it had returned to the northern side of the roof maybe 10 minutes later. This would not be my only frustrating gull story for the day.

There is often a large gathering of gulls at the big parking area at Everett Marine Park – at times many dozens. They hang out there because many people bring bread and chips and what not to feed them. As a new car drives up, the flock flies over to greet the newcomer to see what treats have arrived. It being Sunday, there were several cars there when I got there and a large flock of gulls was split arranging themselves around each car looking for handouts. If there are enough gulls present, there is almost always at least one HERRING GULL and often ICELAND GULLS as well as our OLYMPIC GULL hybrids (GLAUCOUS WINGED X WESTERN) plus RINGED and SHORT BILLED GULLS and sometimes CALIFORNIA GULLS. I began the search for a gull with pink legs, dark wing tips and a yellow/pale eye. The gulls were squawking and moving around, but I finally found one in one of the groups and got a quick photo.

Then the “fun” began. A couple drove up and unleashed two young boys – I am guessing around 8 years old. They delighted in running at and through the gulls making them fly off only to land at another spot and then the boys would repeat the chase screaming and shrieking with the full encouragement and applause from the parents. Then the dog got out of the car and joining them adding barks to shrieks and the chaos. I was fuming and was about to confront the parents but figured it was just not worth it and would probably not do any good. My final thought was “probably voted for Trump” and then I left.

Herring Gull – Everett Marine Park

Three odd birding experiences but three new species for the month and I FINALLY GOT THAT GLAUCOUS GULL!! and was at 164 species. I ended the second week of March with a return trip to Port Townsend going for the BLUE JAY and hoping for an ANCIENT MURRELET (again). I got to the neighborhood in Port Townsend where the BLUE JAY had been seen regularly around 9:45 a.m. and just kept walking the area around Rose Street. A couple of residents asked me if I was looking “for the Jay”. They had seen it – but not that morning. There were lots of thickets, shrubs and trees and a fair number of birds but it was very windy and whenever a bird would come out in the open, it would be blown over to another area where it would return to cover in some growth. I heard a finch singing and checked my recordings and confirmed it was a new for the month PURPLE FINCH. It even responded to playback but would never come out from hiding. After more than 30 minutes I heard a JAY calling – but it was only a STELLER’S JAY. It flew overhead like a rocket ship – caught in the wind. I continued my circumnavigation of a 4 block area. At the corner of Willow and H streets I heard another JAY – this one was my hoped for BLUE JAY with its familiar down slurred squawking call. I could just barely make it out buried near the top of a thicket – a familiar bird from the East and seen somewhere every year in Washington. It took an hour but “check” – another species.

Then it was over to Point Wilson at Fort Worden. The wind was fierce and the Sound was tossing whitecaps accordingly. I was not optimistic as I walked out towards the Lighthouse which is closed. The wind was so strong it was impossible to hold a camera steady and the only way I could use the scope was to put heavy pressure on it from the top with my left hand as I held the tripod with my right. Even then it was challenging until I partially hid myself behind one of the buildings which at least blocked the full blast of the wind. Definitely not ideal sea-watching conditions. But there were birds. Lots of birds. There was an endless stream of RHINOCEROS AUKLETS. I estimated at least 500 but there could have twice that many. I also counted more than 30 RED BREASTED MERGANSERS zooming by. I believe that MERGANSERS are the fastest flying ducks. With this tailwind they were even faster. Again there may have been many more as I was only able to see and count them as they flew past and not any actually in the tossing water.

I could count some PIGEON GUILLEMOTS on the water, their contrasting black and white aiding that effort. Even more flew past like black bullets with white wing patches. Then 2 more bullets flew by – smaller than the GUILLEMOTS, also black and white but the white was underneath and the wings were solid black. They were sufficiently close that I could make out the white patches on the side of their heads just as they disappeared in the wind. They were ANCIENT MURRELETS. A second group – a single pair -flew by further out. There were almost certainly more. I braved it out for just under an hour fascinated by the show of RHINOS and hoping for more AUKLETS. Fighting the wind was actually exhausting and as I would be heading off the nest day for a three day trip to Walla Walla and other areas in Eastern Washington, and with both targets seen for the day plus a bonus PURPLE FINCH, I called it quits and headed home – just missing one ferry and being the second car on the next one.

Two weeks of Big March were in the books. I had birded at least a little bit every day and had seen 167 species. Had I been luckier or better I would have could have should have been over 175 species. Somehow that 8 species differential loomed large but I could make it go away with a good trip East. You can see what happened in Part III of Big March.

Big March 2022 – Part I – Setting the Stage -Project Management

When I have tried to describe my work/professional life to people, I usually start with acknowledging that I was once an attorney and then immediately add that I escaped and am fully recovered, reformed, rehumanized or some other deflection that acknowledges that that profession is not universally adored. Eventually, though, I get around to describing what I have done as being project management although never in the certified or professional sense of that term. I found the following definition of project management online: “Project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific project objectives according to the project acceptance criteria within agreed parameters. Project management has final deliverables that are constrained to a finite timescale and budget.” I was always happiest and most productive when I could fully immerse myself in that kind of application – with stated goals/objectives and deliverables at least broadly speaking.

Such has been the case with my birding life as well, always most enjoyable when there was a project – a goal which required the application of skills and knowledge – identification, observation, communication, logistics, physical and emotional engagement and application of a process that I had developed without planning to do so and which evolved as the projects changed as did my own skills and experience. Listing and chasing have been major parts of my birding life bringing focus and resolve to my activity, maintaining my engagement and bringing joy despite occasional failings and disappointment. Whether it was finding a specific bird, adding to a state or ABA life list or targeting a defined number of species for a particular time period – day, month, year – in truth most of my birding has been managing a birding project rather than just birding for birding’s sake. While completing the project has been important and satisfying, I think what is more valuable and important is the immersion in the process, driven by the objective, and the discovery of people, places and ideas along the way. Birding has been the instrument and having a project has provided the structure for using the instrument to maximize my benefits.

In January 2018 my project was a Big Month in Washington trying to find at least 200 species in the state during that month. I ended up with 207 species, wrote a lot of blog posts about the experience (8) and had a good time. The last blog post was a reflection of the experience and somewhat like this post will be, was a reflection on me and my birding. In that post, I wrote: “As I have written before, these kinds of challenges provide a framework for my birding.  Maybe it would be better to just go out and enjoy birds and birding wherever without any specific plan or goal – just be in and enjoy the moment.  I have found that at least for me, having a target, a plan, a goal, a “project” brings me that same “in the moment” feeling but with some structure that not only does not get in the way but actually enhances each moment – whether there is a hit or a miss.  There is just a heightened awareness that is consuming and enjoyable.” Perhaps I had not specifically acknowledged the role that project management has always played in my life, but the gist of it was there.

As 2022 arrived, I noted that I had finished all the little to do list projects at home. I was not going to do another Big Year in Washington, and I was feeling the need for another birding project. One nice thing about projects is that they often lead to other projects – either another assignment in my working life, or another challenge, goal or objective in my birding one. I considered redoing my 50/50/50 Adventure (a really big project) but this time doing all 50 states in a single year. Cindy and I had scheduled a trip to Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina for January. That could have provided a good start on that project, but after yet another surge in Covid cases in those states, we canceled that trip. Redoing 50/50/50 would mean a commitment of at least 100 to 125 days. Losing that January start really did not leave enough time for me to undertake that travel and also do the travel that Cindy and I planned/hoped for in 2022 making up for other trips that had been canceled in 2020 and 2021. But I still needed a project. Confronting that same challenge in 2021, I reminded myself that I had successfully managed the “Big January” three years earlier, why not try for a “Big February” – looking for for 200 species in Washington February 2021. I did not make it by much but did end February 2021 with 202 species (see and earlier posts). Poring over my Ebird statistics, I found that without specifically trying to do so, I had seen more than 200 species species in Washington in April in 2015 (201 species) and also in May 2013 (214 species). Why not fill in the gap for March with a Big March 2022? And beyond that, if I could live long enough, how about doing a Big Month for every month of the year? If this one worked, it would be 5 down and 7 to go – but first there was March.

Without any specific goal, I had seen 177 species in Washington in 2014. It shouldn’t be hard to add 23 more species if that was the project to be managed, right? Looking at that 2014 list, the only “tough” species were GYRFALCON and TUFTED DUCK. Everything else seemed normal and simply a matter of covering the right places at the right time. I next looked at Ebird reports for Washington in March in recent years. There were some rarities that could not be counted on and inevitably there are some misses, but that research (an essential part of every project management) indicated that more than 260 species had been seen in March in the past few years and that at least 230 species were reasonably somewhat possible – with luck, time, skill and perseverance. Furthermore in 2014, I had birded on 21 different days – theoretically leaving 10 extra days to get those additional 23 species. Importantly, in 2014 I had not visited the Okanogan and had no pelagic species. Perhaps optimistically those two trips could add more than 20 species. A pelagic trip was scheduled out of Westport for March 26 and I wanted Cindy to see the Okanogan for the first time, so those were great options. On the other hand, in 2014 I had a very successful multi-day trip to Eastern Washington mid-month that produced 43 species. It would be essential to repeat and even surpass that success – possibly with more than one visit.

Okanogan County – 146 Species Reported in March 2021 incl. 18 “specialties”

After this research and analysis, I concluded that 200 species should be easy, that 220 species was a good challenge but doable, and that even 230 species was possible if everything went well. Easy on paper – not so easy in the field, as my experience proved that not all does go well. AND there was another consideration. Cindy had to schedule knee surgery and late March looked like the best time for many reasons. I would gladly be the caregiver but that would mean no distant birding. We set the surgery for March 28th and I recalibrated my reasonable goal to 215 but still felt 200 would be easy – especially with that pelagic trip ahead.

The approach I used in each of the previously planned Big Month projects was to use the first day to chase the rarest of the species that had been seen on the last day of the previous month. For March 2022 that was easy, a WHOOPER SWAN had been reported daily in Monroe, Washington since February 8th. I had added it as both and an ABA Area Lifer already and that would be the first official stop. That was not the first birding for the month, however, as I notched 10 species on my routine morning walk with our black lab Chica around our home at Point Edwards. Maybe it was a good omen that a not always seen or heard VARIED THRUSH was among those 10. I added ROCK PIGEON and RED TAILED HAWK before arriving at the “Prison Farm Ponds” Stakeout for the swan. Its largely yellow bill made it easy to find among the 6 dozen TRUMPETER SWANS it had continue to hang with. Earlier planning had not expected anything this rare – a true mega-rarity – on the month list. I added another ten species there plus five including LINCOLN’S SPARROW at the nearby Crescent Lake Wildlife Management Area and then headed to also nearby Lord’s Lake hoping that the REDHEADS I had seen there in February remained. They had and I added some more water birds and was then up to 34 species. It was 9:45 a.m. on Day 1.

Whooper Swan Mega Rarity – Monroe
Redheads – Lords Lake – Monroe

Next on the “rarest hangover from February list” was the CINNAMON TEAL at the 212th Street ponds in Kent where with luck there would also be a rare for the area BLACK PHOEBE. Both proved easy to find. Not nearly as rare but often quite hard to find was a surprise AMERICAN BITTERN that I flushed as I circumnavigated the Easternmost pond. A WILSON’S SNIPE also flushed – the 10th new species for the day and of course Big March. I was now at 44 and counting.

Cinnamon Teal – 212th Street Ponds

It is always an “up” when targets are found, so I was pretty up at this point but my next target had often proved uncooperative and a “down”. Levee Pond in Fife has become the “go to” spot for GREEN HERON. I had seen one there in in each of the last several years including in January 2022, but I had also missed it in probably half of my attempts. No problem this time as it was perched on its favorite water pipe – visible as soon as I got out of my car. A BLACK CAPPED CHICKADEE scolded me as I approached for a photo – 46 species and counting.

Green Heron – Levee Pond

With the GREEN HERON, I was batting 1000 on 5 “chases’ an average that dropped when I failed to find a YELLOW BILLED LOON that had been reported at Discovery Park, a great Hotspot in Seattle, but one I hate to bird. I did add PILEATED WOODPECKER, RHINOCEROS AUKLET and 5 other species but not the prize. Next it was off to Green Lake in Seattle for another holdover rarity – possibly two. A flock of COMMON REDPOLLS often including a putative HOARY REDPOLL had been foraging around the same group of alders at the northeast end of the lake for weeks. When I arrived on the spot another birder was there, but he had not seen any REDPOLLS. Disappointed, I walked a bit further north and got lucky as the flock flew into trees overhead and even luckier as the HOARY was with them even though the group was smaller than usual. These were really great adds to the list. A GADWALL and a GREAT BLUE HERON brought the day list to 59 species. It was 3 p.m.

The sun was setting later and later as the year progressed, but in Washington, sundown in early march is still relatively early. There would be enough time to scope Puget Sound from the Public Fishing Pier in hometown Edmonds, scope some more on Sunset Avenue and then hit local Pine Ridge Park hoping to get lucky with a BARRED OWL. Eleven more species from the Pier and along Sunset including a not always found BLACK SCOTER. No owl at Pine Ridge Park but a few forest birds brought the final total for the day to 74 – all within 40 miles of home. An excellent start in good weather – not a sure thing ever especially in March. I figured I would get the BARRED OWL later but probably would not find a YELLOW BILLED LOON. Both had been on my target list in the initial plan for the month.

Day 1 had been south and Day 2 would head north. There were three holdover rarities to target but mostly species to check off for the month. The targets were a RUDDY TURNSTONE that had been seen the previous month on the spit at Tulalip Bay and the GYRFALCON and PRAIRIE FALCON that were still being seen intermittently in Skagit County. I had not tried for the RUDDY TURNSTONE earlier in the year and it had not been as regular as in years past, although very uncommon in Washington. I did not see it this day either but was able to add 7 new species for the month in the area. I then went to a stakeout in Arlington looking for a RUSTY BLACKBIRD. It had been hanging with a small flock of RED WINGED BLACKBIRDS that visited a feeder at a private residence. A small flock of birds were at the feeder and flew off just as I arrived. Had the RUSTY been with them? I never would know since they did not return as I waited maybe 30 minutes. I guess it was a bad day for RU birds as I failed to find either the RUDDY or the RUSTY, both on my “reasonable chance” list for the month. This was not a good start and the bad luck continued.

Black Bellied Plover – Tulalip Spit

I next headed to Wylie Slough in Skagit County hoping for some shorebirds and maybe a WOOD DUCK. On the way I found a large flock of SNOW GEESE. They are present in the thousands but not always in the same fields so possible to miss. I also found a couple of TUNDRA SWANS. There were 19 species at Wylie but zero shorebirds and no WOOD DUCKS, a NORTHERN SHOVELER the only new species for the month. Nearby on Dry Slough Road, there was a surprise, two BARN SWALLOWS, possibly birds that had over wintered as swallows were not yet returning from their migration south.

Before heading to the Samish Flats area to look for the falcons, I headed to Rosario Head/Beach where targets were BLACK OYSTERCATCHER and HARLEQUIN DUCK and maybe some “Rockpiper”. It was windy and cold and I felt lucky find one of each of the specific target – both distant and not photo ops – no Rockpipers at all. In fact the tide was fairly low and all the birds were distant. Scope views added COMMON MURRES and RED THROATED LOONS to the month list. Maybe there was something else, but just too far to tell.

I had seen both of the targeted falcons on my Falcon Sweep day on January 31st (See but found neither on this day although I fortunately added both PEREGRINE FALCON and MERLIN. Looking for the falcons, I visited both the East and West 90’s usual go to spots for SHORT EARED OWL. Not this year though as the fields are flooded and the voles, prey for the owls, were drowned. So no owl that day – and as it turned out, they would not be seen that month at least by me – a sure thing that proved not sure at all. The last stop in the area was at the Samish Day Use area – an overlook where scans of the bay below usually produce hundreds of birds. The wind was howling and the birds were not easily seen as the waves hid them and kept them far from shore. This is the best place relatively close to me to find WHITE WINGED SCOTERS and LONG TAILED DUCKS. The SCOTERS were there but at best I had a maybe LONG TAILED DUCK not countable. I picked up a YELLOW RUMPED WARBLER at my final stop – back home at the Edmonds Marsh.

As it turned out the RUDDY TURNSTONE was not seen by anyone in March. There were scattered birder-to-birder reports of the GYRFALCON being seen but it is a sensitive species on Ebird so no details. The PRAIRIE FALCON was seen off and on in the same areas I had looked. Just bad timing and unfortunately I never found one in possible good places in Eastern Washington on trips later. SHORT EARED OWL sightings in March were regular on San Juan Island and sporadic elsewhere. I would definitely have lost the bet, but of the 43 times I have seen SHORT EARED OWLS in Washington, none have been in March. Day 2 added twenty two new species for the month – total now at 96 – but 6 misses for the day and pretty crappy weather – left me feeling pretty crappy as well. The next day Cindy and I would be heading to Eastern Washington – particularly Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan Counties. There was a long target list.

Merlin – Edison, WA
Rough Legged Hawk – Samish Flats
Peregrine Falcon – Samish Flats

Okay, okay – “the Okanogan” is beautiful in Winter. And yes Cindy enjoyed her first trip to the area – the snowy hills, solitude, expansive snow covered fields and traffic-less roads. The weather was clear and not too cold – and actually that was a problem. I have not visited the area in March. Each of the past ten years I have been there in December or January or February. It has been either cold or very cold and the backroads have been covered with snow. Not too much to prevent passage but enough to cover the gravel and present a complete “empty white scape” – threatening at first glance to those of us who live not just in developed areas but in areas where snowfall is infrequent and typically rained away in a few days. But as all wheel drive handles the roads safely and easily, we adjust and there is an overwhelming peacefulness that remains. Last year as part of a Big February when I visited the area, there were several hours of travel on snow covered dirt or gravel roads when I never saw another human or another vehicle. Just birds.

So much for the good part of the trip, the bad parts were pretty bad, starting with the realization about 30 miles from our Edmonds start that I had left my camera on the dining room table. I can blame that on preparing for travel for two instead of alone as usual, but that would be a poor excuse at best. If it were not going to be such a long trip, anyhow, I might have turned back to retrieve it. If I had maybe it would have changed our luck/experience. Or maybe it was just a difference between visiting the area in March and visiting earlier. There were many critical or at least possible targets for the visit: SNOWY, PYGMY and NORTHERN SAW WHET OWLS, SHARP TAILED GROUSE, CHUKAR, GRAY PARTRIDGE, GOLDEN EAGLE, BOHEMIAN WAXWING, CLARK’S NUTCRACKER, WILD TURKEY, CANYON WREN, RED and WHITE WINGED CROSSBILLS, SNOW BUNTING, LAPLAND LONGSPUR, GRAY JAY, NORTHERN SHRIKE, TREE SPARROW, and less likely but possible DUSKY GROUSE, AMERICAN THREE TOED WOODPECKER, GRAY CROWNED ROSY FINCH and PINE GROSBEAK. In my initial planning, I counted on at least 12 of these species, and yes with pictures of most of them. Additionally there were at least another 15 or so species that were regular and should be found on this trip but no big deal if they were missed as they were sure things later on other Eastern Washington trips. This trip should produce at least 25 new species for March and with luck maybe 30.

Well, it was not to be. Before getting to the Okanogan the trip usually includes many miles of driving through the vast snow covered flat fields on the Waterville Plateau. On past trips, there were many thousand HORNED LARKS, dozens if not hundreds of SNOW BUNTINGS, usually some GRAY PARTRIDGE and SNOWY OWLS, often LAPLAND LONGSPURS and possibly GYRFALCONS. TREE SPARROWS were possible at a couple of woodlots. Most roads would be easily passable over plowed snow perhaps 4 to 6 inches deep. This time, most roads and many fields were entirely free of snow. We flushed hundreds of HORNED LARKS and saw a few COMMON RAVENS but that was all. The previously reported SNOWY OWLS were gone – not a good start.

Bridgeport State Park comes after the Waterville Plateau and is a go to spot for NORTHERN SAW WHET OWL. In some years past there have been multiple owls roosting and buried in the trees scattered through the park. This year reports were of single owls or none. But there were consistent reports of a flock of BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS in the poplars along the entrance road. Cindy was the first to spot birds in those trees. We stopped and readily found several groups of the WAXWINGS maybe as many as 60 in all. No camera, so no pictures but they are so special I am including one from a trip in years past. Maybe our luck was turning.

Bohemian Waxwing

The best way to find a NORTHERN SAW WHET OWL in the park is to find a camper there who knows which tree(s) they are roosting in. The second best way is to find some “white wash” (owl poop) on the ground below a tree. There were no campers and we found no whitewash – so now owl. WAXWINGS aside, the luck was still flowing against us. We carried on north and picked up a SAY’S PHOEBE in Brewster. This would be a regular species in Eastern Washington in March so not a big deal, but especially given the rest of the day, it was nice to get something new. I am including a photo of one species missed, the NORTHERN SAW WHET OWL. It is a favorite photo and it’s my blog so I get to do things like this.

Northern Saw Whet Owl – January 2017 and definitely NOT March 2022

One of my go to places in Okanogan County is the 20+ miles of Cameron Lake Road. It is another place where SNOW BUNTINGS and GRAY PARTRIDGE have been regular in the past and where other area specialties are always possible. It is also a place where many years ago I had two flat tires, something I did not tell Cindy until we had finished the travel. As before, the road was almost completely clear of snow, some fields were bare and the area was almost birdless. We added a WESTERN MEADOWLARK and NOTHING ELSE!!! It was nearing 3:00 p.m. and we had added a grand total of only 4 new species only one of which was on the specialty target list and we had missed at least 5 or 6.

There was only enough time to continue north taking the Riverside Cutoff Road to the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area. I have usually had CANYON WREN and GOLDEN EAGLE on the Cutoff Road with the possibility of SHARP TAILED GROUSE at Scotch Creek. It would then be on to Conconully where WILD TURKEYS were certain, a BLUE JAY had recently been reported, where I have had CLARK’S NUTCRACKERS and where other Eastern Washington birds were possible. I have also had GRAY PARTRIDGE and RING NECKED PHEASANT on farms on the way to Scotch Creek. Bad luck continued. There were no GOLDEN EAGLES or CANYON WRENS on the Cutoff Road, no pheasants or partridge in the farm fields on the way to Scotch Creek and there was very little snow at Scotch Creek, so even if SHARP TAILED GROUSE were there, they would be on the ground and essentially invisible instead of feeding atop the water birch and thus easy to see.

On the way in to Conconully we found some CALIFORNIA QUAIL, a WESTERN BLUEBIRD and some BLACK BILLED MAGPIES and in Conconully itself we finally located the WILD TURKEYS but the BLUE JAY was not at the feeder where it had been a couple of days earlier. Disappointed, we headed south to Omak where we would be staying for two nights with a side trip along Salmon Creek Road where we found some calling CASSIN”S FINCHES but nothing else. Thus ended a very discouraging day 3 of Big March. Nine new species for the month but only the BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS were truly special targets for the trip – and way too many misses. On the bright side, there were no flat tires and there was always tomorrow – which would take us to the Okanogan Highlands – one of the prettiest areas in Washington – and hopefully some good birds.

We got off to a good start on March 4th at Fancher Road. There is a cattle ranch there with a big open grazing field next to a rocky hillside. I first became aware of it as a great spot for CHUKAR IN 2018 when I had 35 CHUKAR there. That was 15 more than I had seen at one time anywhere previously. The next year I returned and had at least 135 CHUKAR there. Interestingly others have visited the same spot and had large numbers or just a single CHUKAR or none. This would be a good visit as we had at least 50. We moved on to Siwash Creek Road. I had discovered SHARP TAILED GROUSE there in 2020. I am sure there were reports from there earlier, but my report put it on the map for many birders and there were several observations from February 2022. We carefully checked all the water birch thickets for well over an hour, also keeping an eye out for NORTHERN PYGMY OWL which is often seen there. Once again there was less snow than usual so maybe the grouse were not up high feeding on the catkins. In any event – no grouse and no owls. We did find all three Washington species of nuthatch – RED BREASTED, WHITE BREASTED and PYGMY and also RED CROSSBILLS and MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES. We did not find any WHITE WINGED CROSSBILLS – another bad miss.

As per earlier comments, there was significantly less snow than I had seen in the past. The temperature had been below freezing the night before, but it warmed into the mid to upper 40’s and the ice in the roads was turning to mud – not my favorite. There was some snow as we headed up to the Havillah Sno-Park. I have had GREAT GRAY OWL, NORTHERN PYGMY OWL and AMERICAN THREE TOED WOODPECKER there. This visit was eerily quiet – just a HAIRY WOODPECKER and some finches. Heading back to Havillah Road we did add a CLARK’S NUTCRACKER and a MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD. We drove around the Okanogan Highlands for another few hours – finding nothing of note and nothing new. Pretty? Yes, but also pretty birdless.

We left the Highlands returning to Tonasket and then headed back to the Riverside Cutoff Road hoping for species missed the previous afternoon. We were only partially successful finding a singing CANYON WREN just where it was supposed to be on one of the cliffs. Still no GOLDEN EAGLE and no GRAY PARTRIDGE or even a RING NECKED PHEASANT on Conconully Road. Again in poor spirits – at least birding wise – we returned to Omak and had a nice dinner. Altogether we had added 10 species for the day/month to get to 115. The CANYON WREN, CLARK’S NUTCRACKER, RED CROSSBILL, and CHUKAR were on the second tier of the specialties list. I would try again the next morning alone with Cindy catching up on some sleep and then we would be heading home.

On the morning of March 5th I returned to Siwash Creek Road determined to find a SHARP TAILED GROUSE and/or a NORTHERN PYGMY OWL and/or some CROSSBILLS with white wings. Heading north on Highway 97 just south of Tonasket at 6:30 a.m. a bird perched on a telephone wire caught my eye. I did a quick U-turn (there was no traffic) and what might have been a KESTREL from initial reaction turned out to be a NORTHERN SHRIKE – high on my wants list for the trip. Unfortunately despite another hour plus on Siwash Creek Road – no grouse or owls. The timing was just bad. Marcus Roenig and Heather Ballash did find two SHARP TAILED GROUSE on Siwash Creek Road on March 12th – both on the ground and not in the trees. There were no other March reports for this species. A NORTHERN PYGMY OWL was found by others at the Havillah Sno-Park but that was it. There was also just a single report of a single SNOW BUNTING near Oroville late in March. As I said just bad timing.

We left Omak and headed home. At a stop at the Monse Bridge on the Okanogan River we added CANVASBACK for the month and then at the Entiat Lake Overview, we added RUDDY DUCK. Both would be easy to find later elsewhere, but with our specialty count so low, any new species was appreciated.

There would be one more stop on the way home. LESSER GOLDFINCHES were being seen regularly at Debbie Sutherland’s feeder in Cashmere. I figured out the address and made an unannounced visit. Debbie was out birding elsewhere, but husband Steve and son Ryan were home and welcomed us in. It did not take long to see 5 LESSER GOLDFINCHES join maybe 10 AMERICAN GOLDFINCHES – also new for the month. We spent at least an hour visiting with Ryan and Steve – frankly the highlight of our trip. Despite severe challenges from Muscular Dystrophy, Ryan is an excellent birder, bright, knowledgeable, personable and articulate and Steve is way beyond supportive of Ryan and very fun as well. He, Ryan and Debbie have traveled broadly birding along the way and collecting great stories. The LESSER GOLDFINCH was a much welcomed addition to the trip and month list. The visit with Steve and Ryan was an upper, but the overhang from the trip was a downer.

We spent the night in Leavenworth with a fun dinner at the Wildflour Restaurant near Lake Wenatchee. The next morning we looked for WHITE HEADED WOODPECKER at The Sleeping Lady Resort and the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. I have had the woodpecker at both places but more often have failed to find one there – today it would be the latter – another miss. We added a DOWNY WOODPECKER for the month and headed home. On the way back I added WOOD DUCK and BROWN CREEPER at parks near home.

Quantitatively things did not look so bad. We had added 26 new species for the trip and the total of 123 species seemed proportionately good for just 6 days. But there had been too many misses, which added to some misses earlier, was troubling. The low hanging fruit was largely taken and it would get harder to add bunches of birds going forward. Also although there were 26 days remaining in the month, the four at the end would most likely not be available for birding. Still I knew new species would be arriving and I had not yet been to Clark County or to the Coast or to Walla Walla and to the Shrub Steppe Sage habitat. Time to end this part of the Blog – somewhat behind schedule but with a lot of days left. (To be continued.)


In baseball, a “Grand Slam” is home run that is hit with the bases loaded – scoring four runs. In tennis, the Grand Slam is winning all four major tournaments: The U.S., French and Australian Opens and Wimbledon. Similarly in golf, it would be winning the four “Majors”, the British and U.S. Opens, the PGA Championship and The Masters. There is no Grand Slam or Slam per se in birding so we are free to make up our own analogies. In the week of January 26th through January 31st I had what I am considering a Streak of Slams – two real birding Slams and another that would fit – well sort of.

The “streak” started with a trip to a feeder in Marysville on January 26th where a rare for the area Lesser Goldfinch was joining the very common American Goldfinches. It cooperated visiting the feeder almost as soon as I arrived and as a bonus, I was able to get a photo with both Goldfinch species together with a House Finch and a Pine Siskin. So four finch species at the same time – not really a Grand Slam in the sense of seeing all of the possible finches together – as there are Purple Finches and Common Redpolls around this year – but a good collection of four finches.

Left to right and top to bottom: Pine Siskin, Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch and American Goldfinch

A Harris’s Sparrow is almost as uncommon in my home Snohomish County as a Lesser Goldfinch. One was being seen with other sparrows at a manure pile at a farm on Thomle Road in Stanwood. A day after the Lesser Goldfinch success the weather looked good, so I headed north hoping for the Harris’s Sparrow. I did not see it on my first visit, but when I returned 30 minutes later, I saw it briefly on some brush behind the manure pile. I started to call birding friend Jon Houghton who had been there earlier also to tell him that the Harris’s Sparrow had appeared and while punching his number, I looked up to see that he had returned as well. We watched as more and more sparrows flew onto the pile and I quickly saw the Harris’s Sparrow – a bit larger than the others.

Harris’s Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow

Other sparrows on the pile included both Golden Crowned and White Crowned Sparrows, House Sparrows and Song Sparrows. Then Jon said he thought he had seen a White Throated Sparrow, not as rare as a Harris’s but definitely not common. The sparrows were moving around quickly, appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Suddenly the White Throated Sparrow was out in the open – unmistakable.

White Throated Sparrow
White Throated Sparrow

It hit us immediately, the surprise White Throated Sparrow meant that we had the “Zono Slam” – all four of the Zonotrichia sparrows at the same time: White Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys); Golden Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricappilla); White Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis); and Harris’s Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula).

Golden Crowned Sparrow
White Crowned Sparrow

I had just missed the Zono Slam some years ago seeing all but the White Throated Sparrow at a feeder in Sequim, Washington. It had been present 30 minutes before I arrived and returned within an hour after I left. It was the first time I had heard of the Slam and hoped it would happen some day. January 27th was my day.

Friday January 28th was a day off and then on Saturday the 29th, Cindy and I were going to have dinner on Whidbey Island. Not trusting the reliability of the Washington Ferries, we took the long route and made a stop in Skagit County to look for a Prairie Falcon that had been reported on Sullivan Road and the West 90’s in the Samish Flats. No luck but at another stop we were able to find a couple of Harlequin Ducks – which together with Black Oystercatcher had been Cindy’s “spark bird”. Prairie Falcons are uncommon west of the Cascades but have been seen in that area many times. A good bird anywhere and always beautiful but I did not plan to return to search again.

Then things changed. Jon Houghton texted a number of Edmonds birders to see if there was interest in looking for the Prairie Falcon AND a Gyrfalcon that had also been reported in the area. Ebird does not publish reports of Gyrfalcon sightings as they are considered a sensitive species – rare and highly prized d by falconers and thus important to protect. I had not been aware of the Gyrfalcon sighting. I would have joined Jon just for it but now the Prairie Falcon was of interest again. On January 31, we headed north in fairly heavy rain. Jon has a “Raindar” app which tracks rain in the area and he promised that it would be clear when we got to the target area.

But what was the target area? Jon’s info was that the Gyrfalcon had been seen near McLean Road, south of Highway 20. The Prairie Falcon reports were from Sullivan Road north of Highway 20 about 13 miles away. There may have been another Gyrfalcon report from the West 90’s a bit north and west of Sullivan Road. Our plan was to start at McLean Road driving it and adjoining roads and then to head north. At McLean Road, it indeed was clear but no falcons. Nearby on Channel Drive we found our first falcon for the day an American Kestrel – a small falcon seemingly so insignificant at the time that we did not even stop for a photo. I had my First of Year Sharp Shinned Hawk fly by and Jon had his first Lesser Scaup.

We drove north and found no falcons at Sullivan Road or the East or West 90’s so carried on to the Samish Island overlook where I had my first Long Tailed Ducks of the year. For the next hour plus, we drove around and around on all of the roads on the Samish Flats. There were ducks in most of the fields, mostly Mallards and American Wigeon numbering in the thousands altogether and Northern Pintails and Green Winged Teal in the hundreds. There were also large flocks of Snow Geese – many thousand and also two or three large flocks of Dunlin – again in the thousands. Bald Eagles were seemingly in every other tree and at a spot by “the Eagle Tree” we had more than 50 Bald Eagles together. Far fewer were the Red Tailed and Rough Legged Hawks.

Rough Legged Hawk
Bald Eagle in Nest at the Eagle Tree

At the West 90’s a juvenile Eagle chased a Red Tail out of a tree right overhead and we had our first of several Peregrine Falcons, checking it carefully hoping it would be the Prairie Falcon. Later at a bend in Bayview Edison Road, we had another Peregrine perched just off the road.

Juvenile Bald Eagle Flying Right Above US
Peregrine Falcon

We took a pastry break at the Breadfarm in Edison and I was able to get my favorite – a Kouign Amann. I usually get there later in the day and they have been sold out for hours. Maybe this was a turn in our luck as the birding definitely picked up. Although it had not been reported recently, a Merlin has been found in Edison many times in the past several years. At the bend just at the corner of town I stopped when I saw a smallish bird at the very top of a Poplar. Maybe just a Robin but worth a look. It was the Merlin – our third falcon of the day, cool but not what we were there hoping to see.

Merlin in Edison

We headed back down to Sullivan Road stopping just below it on Bayview Edison and scoped a huge flock of Dunlin and found two Western Sandpipers – a First of Year for both of us. We also had close ups of Snow Geese in another large flock. Was there a Ross’s Goose hidden in there somewhere? Possible but beyond our patience to scope them all. Suddenly the Dunlin all took off together in one of their beautiful murmurations. This usually means predators near by. Indeed there were as both a Peregrine Falcon and a Northern Harrier swooped through the massive flock.

Western Sandpiper
Thousands of Dunlin in Flight
Snow Goose

Back to Sullivan Road where we saw two birders alongside the road near the home with poplars where the Prairie Falcon had been reported earlier. A great rule to follow in birding is to look for the birders, hoping they would have the target in their sights. One of the birders was Joey McKenzie who said he had had the Gyrfalcon on a post in the adjoining field … but … it had flown off maybe ten minutes earlier and had not been seen again. Good news. It was in the area. Bad news. We had just missed it. We asked, how about the Prairie Falcon? He pointed to the poplars behind us. “Up there”. In our Gyrfalcon excitement we had not even looked. It was mostly hidden behind branches but was unmistakable and we had our 4th falcon species for the day. I got a couple of ok pictures and then the falcon took off to the west and we saw it perch in a tree along Bayview Edison Road. We hopped into the car and were able to get very nice photos.

Prairie Falcon

We had been on Sullivan Road hoping for the Gyrfalcon to return for maybe 15 minutes and then another 10 watching the Prairie on Bayview Edison. Time to search elsewhere. On T Loop we added another raptor for the day bit not a falcon. A Cooper’s Hawk zoomed by us and perched in the open for a couple of minutes. It was hawk number 5 for the day. We wanted a fifth falcon.

Cooper’s Hawk

We circled back to Sullivan Road picking up two more Eurasian Wigeons and another Peregrine along the way. It was hard to tell if we were duplicating our Peregrine sightings. We were able to see three perched ones at once and are pretty sure we had 4 and maybe even 5 for the day. We also tried to make yet another Northern Harrier into a Gyrfalcon.

Eurasian Wigeon
Northern Harrier

We passed the Dunlin flock again and saw several birders on the side of the road with scopes and cameras seemingly looking at them and the Snow Geese. We asked and they had not seen any falcons. We continued back to Sullivan Road and now the Prairie Falcon was back in its favorite poplar tree – this time in the open. I could not improve on the previous photo but thoroughly enjoyed the clear scope views. It really is a beautiful bird. We stayed with fingers crossed for the Gyrfalcon maybe another 20 minutes without success. At the start of the trip Jon and I had agreed that we would be happy with either the Prairie Falcon or the Gyrfalcon. We had seen the Prairie Falcon and agreed we should be happy and call it a day. Back on Bayview Edison Road now heading south, we passed by the birders along the road and I decided to back up and tell them that the Prairie Falcon was out in the open. Before even getting the message out, they said the magic words: “We have the Gyrfalcon.” It had flown in moments earlier and perched atop a mound about 150 yards out in the field to the west. Not the greatest photo op but great scope views and IT WAS A GYRFALCON!!! I probably took over 100 photos in changing light. They were good enough for a confirming ID and a couple were – OK.


From that spot along the road we had scope views of the Gyrfalcon, the Peregrine and Prairie – all in different directions and all within maybe a half mile of each other. We realized that we had seen the Falcon Slam or Grand Slam: American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine and Prairie Falcons and Gyrfalcon – all in the same day, all in Skagit County and all with photos – but oh wait, we had not taken a photo of the Kestrels we had seen. We needed another one and fortunately it only took a brief search to find another one and get the final falcon photo.

American Kestrel

What a day!! We had barely looked at any passerines but had 11 raptors for the day – 5 falcons, 5 hawks and an eagle. Altogether there were well over 100 raptor individuals. Not too many birders are lucky enough to get 5 falcons in a day. Over the next two days many birders were in the area following up on our postings about what we saw. As best we can tell, nobody got got all five – most missing the Merlin and a couple missing a Peregrine.

As I began to write this post this morning, I realized I had seen other falcon species this month in the lower 48 as I had both the Bat Falcon and a Crested Caracara (considered by many a falcon) on my Texas trip. I also realized I had blown it. I had been very close to the area in Texas where Aplomado Falcons are seen regularly. Having seen them before and having a photo, I had chosen to try again for a Groove Billed Ani rather than go for the Aplomado – less than 10 miles away. You never know, but everyone I spoke to who had tried for it had found it. Now that would have been something – 8 falcon species within 2 weeks in the Lower 48 states – including the very rare Gyrfalcon and Aplomado Falcon and the mega rarity Bat Falcon which was being seen for the first time ever in the ABA area. Pretty sure nobody has ever done that before. Maybe nobody before has seen the SEVEN I did see and photograph in one month before either. I love falcons…and slamming!!

Aplomado Falcon – 2017
Bat Falcon – January 2022
Crested Caracara – January 2022


In an exchange with Diane Yorgason-Quinn, I was reminded that there is also a well defined Grand Slam in the game of Bridge. A Slam in that game is a hand winning 12 tricks and a Grand Slam wins all 13 tricks. I last played bridge 50 years ago as a way to avoid going to class in Law School. I recall at least one Grand Slam back then, maybe there were more. Later I recalled another birding Slam and checking records see that I have had it at least twice – this is the Skua Slam. In Europe, jaegers are called skuas while in the U.S. we have three jaegers and a skua. These are the four species generally possible to be seen in the U.S. (with the alternate Skua name from Europe): Parasitic Jaeger/Arctic Skua; Pomarine Jaeger/Pomarine Skua; Long Tailed Jaeger/Long Tailed Skua and South Polar Skua. There are three other skua/jaeger species in the world, two of which appear only in waters south of the equator and the Great Skua which is very rarely seen in the U.S. In the U.S.

My first pelagic trip was in 1974 and we found all four of the skua/jaeger species. I had this great good fortune again on September 5, 2015 and was able to get photos of each species. These photos are my best of each species rather than solely from that one trip as those are of a lower quality.

Parasitic Jaeger
Pomarine Jaeger
Long Tailed Jaeger

So there it is a Skua Slam. Maybe readers will think of another one.

South Texas Chasing

They had been out there calling me for several weeks – rarities in South Texas: the Social Flycatcher at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Brownsville, the Golden Crowned Warbler at the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, the Hook Billed Kite at Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission and especially the Bat Falcon at Santa Ana NWR in Alamo. All would be ABA lifers and there was also a chance of getting an ABA life photo of a Groove Billed Ani at the San Benito Wetlands (or maybe another location). I had held off going almost entirely due to the surge of the Omicron variant of the Covid-19 Virus. Cindy and I also had plans/thoughts of trips to Tanzania (canceled by the tour), to Charleston SC and Savannah GA (canceled by us) and to Chile and Argentina (canceled by the tour). These were all again victims of Omicron. When that last trip was canceled I had had it.

Cindy and I talked through risks and rewards and agreed that being double vaccinated and boosted and with N95 masks in hand, I should go. When I was able to find reasonable trips to McAllen TX cashing in not all that many miles on American Airlines, it was decided. A go. I had checked with others who might go as well, but they were not ready to take the leap. I was on my own. It would be a 5 day trip – two days of travel and three days of birding. I reserved a hotel room (using credits) and a car in McAllen. Cindy dropped me off at SeaTac airport in plenty of time to make the 11:55 am flight to Dallas which would then connect to McAllen where I would arrive at 8:30 pm, get my car and drive to my hotel. I had checked E-bird reports and all of the target birds had been seen the previous day. It seemed the stars were perfectly aligned. And then they weren’t…

There was a “mechanical problem” with the American Airlines plane leading to a 4 hour delay making it impossible to make the connection in Dallas for McAllen. The snowball kept rolling. I was put onto a later flight out of Dallas arriving in McAllen at midnight – but that put me in too late to get my car as the counter closed at 10 pm. And that meant I would not be able to drive to my hotel. And the shuttle to the hotel was not available after 10 pm. And the car rental counter would not open until 8:00 am the next morning – making it impossible to drive to Santa Ana to try for the Bat Falcon at dawn – one of the best times to see it on its favorite perch. And the weather forecast had changed and the 80 degrees and sun of the day I was travelling would turn into temperatures in the 30’s, some rain or possibly even some snow or sleet. Had I known all of this in advance, I would not have made the trip. So not a great start.

As I have said in other blog posts, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. By pure coincidence and luck, the hotel I had chosen was across the street from the McAllen Airport. I could walk less than 300 yards and cross one street and be there. I still would not have a car for an early morning start, but I could walk back across the single street and be at the counter before it opened. I would have to change plans for an early start, but a major disaster was avoided by that hotel choice. OK – on to Plan B.

Day 1 – Thursday morning – Plan B. I did not get to bed as early as I would have liked, but since I had to wait for the car rental to open, I actually got 5+ hours of sleep and was at the counter at 7:50 a.m. They were getting ready to open so actually got me a car by 8:00 – paperwork complete. I had to circle back to the hotel to pick up gear etc. so I was able to be on the road by 8:10 – about 2 hours behind the original plan. So instead of heading Southeast to Santa Ana I headed further south and further east to the “land bridge” at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in Brownsville. Unfortunately the coordinates for the “land bridge” on Ebird as translated to the GPS on my phone and on my Garmin took me to the wrong place where I intersected not with other birders but instead with dozens of Border Control officers and soldiers with combat gear and scary guns. On my best behavior and using my friendliest personality I actually had decent conversations with several and even got them to look at a photo of a Social Flycatcher and got some smiles. I eventually blundered to the UTRGV Bookstore, parked and then walked to the “land bridge” – essentially a passageway between a small pond and a large Resaca on the campus.

It was really cold and really windy and I was really not dressed for this weather and apparently the birds were affected by the weather as well. It was NOT real birdy. A couple of other birders were there looking for the Social Flycatcher and had not seen it during the 30 minutes they had already been there. We birded together and also split up and covered the land bridge and the adjoining area. About 15 minutes in I was pretty sure I heard the target but got no visual. Thirty minutes later we thought we had it but it turned out to be a very similar looking Great Kiskadee. There was a Least Grebe and a Green Kingfisher at the small pond. We saw Golden Fronted and Ladder Backed Woodpeckers and a couple of warblers and Northern Cardinals. We had another flycatcher – an Eastern Phoebe. The Social Flycatcher was being very antisocial.

Great Kiskadee

It got even colder and windier. I could barely feel my fingers or toes – what happened to South Texas sunshine? I am sure I would have felt warmer if the chase was successful. About 45 minutes into the search, the Social Flycatcher finally made an appearance – only briefly and absolutely buried behind several branches making a photo impossible. We were sure of the ID with the black and white pattern, small size and small bill compared to the Great Kiskadee and an absence of the rusty wings. But it sure would have been nice to get a photo. No one did and then it was gone.

Even without a photo this was a great start but it was now almost noon and the plan was to try for two more of the targets today leaving the Hook Billed Kite for tomorrow. Feeling the cold and also seeing that the next day could be worse, the pressure was on to leave and try for the Golden Crowned Warbler. I bid adieu to the other two birders who remained and headed back to the parking lot with the parting words – “I am sure it will show now.” One of the birders remaining was Barbara DeWitt whose non-birding husband Al was in the parking lot. We had exchanged words before I left before. As soon as I arrived, he announced that Barbara had just gotten a photo. I ran back but it was gone again. Grrr! The picture included is not mine. It was included in the Ebird report of Karen Carpenter taken 2 days earlier in good weather. Note the blue sky – not ever seen during my visit.

Social Flycatcher (Karen Carpenter)

On the way to my next target I stopped at a Walmart to get another layer of clothes and to grab a wrap for lunch. Amazingly I found a “puffer jacket” on clearance for $9.00. The sandwich wrap was $2.50 – the total of less than $12.00 was among the best expenditures I have ever made. Should have gotten boots and gloves as well.

At the Valley Nature Center, the Naturalist said the Golden Crowned Warbler was very active and had been seen a few minutes ago. Another birder and I went to the spot he suggested and heard it immediately – almost constantly chipping. We played hide and seek chasing the Warbler from one thicket to another all within maybe 40 yards of each other. We would get a brief glance buried behind several branches then a split second in the clear, then gone then back behind branches and gone again. This continued for an hour. My best photo was pretty poor – a certain ID but not much better. The cold continued and while happy for the jacket, I really wanted some gloves and a stocking cap. So success but not perfect. I wanted to go for the Bat Falcon and figured I could return and try for a better photo again. I left as more birders came in. There had been only a few other species seen with the best being an unphotographed Northern Beardless Flycatcher. Easier to photograph were the many Plain Chachalacas and Inca Doves.

Golden Crowned Warbler
Inca Dove
Plain Chachalaca

It was already 3:30 when I got to Santa Ana. The Bat Falcon had most often been seen at a telephone pole right at the entry road to the park – usually early in the morning or at dusk. I had already missed the first option so was hoping for option 2 in about 2 hours. I saw a couple of Harris’s Hawks at “The Pole” and a falcon – a Kestrel not the Bat Falcon. I entered the Park parked the car and decided to just bird generally before returning to “The Pole”. There was an elevated path next to a ditch and as I walked down it I noticed a small bird in the ditch – a Spotted Sandpiper. In the field we are often drawn to other birders when we see their cameras, binoculars or scopes trained on “something” hoping it might be of interest to us as well. Four other birders saw me and approached. One was a woman who I think was local and was dressed in a long “down” coat – perfect for the day. Two of the others were Lisa and Steve Murray – volunteers at the Park who were excellent birders, knew every part of the Park and had seen the Bat Falcon many times and knew its patterns. They were a lucky find for me much better than the Spotted Sandpiper. The third was a photographer/birder who was attending a program that night and was hoping for a Bat Falcon photo before that. As the five of us carried on I learned that he was more into wildlife than birds and had travelled widely and great stories.

Harris’s Hawk

Lisa said there was a chance we might spot the Bat Falcon on one of the many snags visible from the tower about 1/2 mile into the park. We birded our way to it not seeing much except for a couple of Chachalacas and a Roadrunner on the ground. From the tower we saw a Gray Hawk, some Turkey Vultures, a Red Tailed Hawk and – another falcon – “only” a Merlin. You know there is something special afoot when there is disappointment in seeing a Merlin. Lisa pointed out a number of snags where she had seen the Bat Falcon before and gave us a geography lesson pointing out Mexico not that far to the south. An interesting aside was about some wind turbines visible in Mexico. Lisa said that they get 90% of their electricity from Mexico and during the blackout in Texas last year, they were unaffected because of that sourcing.

Far out and visible only barely through binoculars Lisa saw a “bump” on a snag. Steve took a picture and it looked like it “might” be the Bat Falcon. There was one scope in the group and with Lisa’s help, it was trained on the bump and sure enough it was the Bat Falcon. Everyone got a look and had a “tick” for a lifer. We all took turns trying to get Digi scoped photos – with varying degrees of success – but proof of our good fortune. Granted it was a lousy photo but this was my third ABA lifer for the day – almost making up for the cold – almost.

Digi Scoped Bat Falcon

Lisa thought we would be early but should head back to the Park entry and see if the Bat Falcon would show at The Pole. As we reached the entrance road about 20 minutes later, about 200 yards away, we saw someone with a camera trained on The Pole. The Bat Falcon was at the top. I broke into a run and then stopped for a quick photo and then started running again. The bird flew off. Would this be a near miss? No – I got to the road and for the next 20 minutes watched the Bat Falcon put on an amazing aerial show as it flew overhead and along highway 281 stopping to perch on a topless palm tree and then flying off again and again. It is small – a bit smaller than an American Kestrel – and looks like a Barn Swallow in flight but much faster. It was awesome and the photo ops when perched were as much as anyone could hope for even if there was little light. It was the first time in the day when I did not feel the cold!!

Bat Falcon
Bat Falcon
Bat Falcon

This small charismatic falcon was first seen around December 18, 2021. It was the first time it has appeared in the United States and hundreds of birders have made the pilgrimage to Santa Ana to add it to their life lists. To the best of my knowledge I have seen only one other species that was the first U.S. records – in my home state of Washington – the Eurasian Hobby at Neah Bay on October 30, 2014. A Swallow Tailed Gull found by Ryan Merrill at Carkeek Park on August 31, 2017 had been seen only in the Bay Area in California previously. There were at least a dozen other birders at the entrance watching the Bat Falcon show. Everyone left happy. Thus ended day 1 of Chasing in Texas.

Day 2 – Friday January 21 – The weather predictions had called for low temperatures and rain overnight on Thursday with the possibility of freezing rain and icy roads on Friday morning. Fortunately the temperature never got below 36. There was rain, not as much wind and no ice. The plan was to look for Groove Billed Anis at the San Benito Wetlands, then to return to UTRGV to try for a photo of the Social Flycatcher, then to return to Valley Nature Center hoping for a better photo of the Golden Crowned Warbler and depending on the success of the Ani chase to try for it at another location where they had been reported.

The San Benito Wetlands would have been great fun if it had not been raining, had not been muddy, had been warmer and had been birdier OR had any Anis. They were still interesting despite none of those being the case. I was the only person there and in fact was the only person I had seen within a half mile of them. Black Necked Stilts and Killdeer brought my shorebird trip total to 3. The only other new bird was a Ruby Crowned Kinglet perched on some reeds – an odd location it seemed. I know Anis can be secretive, but I think I would have seen them if they had been there. I didn’t. A muskrat dove into one of the ponds just in front of me. The only other mammals I saw on the trip were a rabbit and a couple of squirrels.

Black Necked Stilt

Back to Brownsville and maybe a Social Flycatcher photo. There were several birders there. They had not seen it. It was birdier than the previous day, drizzly and less windy but still cold and my feet were wet from the rain and the San Benito Wetlands. I thought the boots I brought were waterproof – they were not. Pretty miserable which became more miserable when an hour and 45 minutes of searching failed to produce a Social Flycatcher. Especially when chasing rarities the odds of meeting other birders are good – and often they are birders of some repute in addition to talent. Such was the case this morning as I met Jeremy Dominquez who had set a lower 48 Big Year record in 2020 and who I had read about in various places. We birded together for much of the time I was there. With his expertise, not finding the Social Flycatcher felt less like a failure. I learned later that a couple of hours after I left, he did see it and got a photo. Woulda shoulda coulda – didn’t.

Among the birds seen while I was there were a Black Crowned Night Heron, Great Kiskadees, Golden Fronted Woodpeckers, Red Crowned Parrots, Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, 6 warbler species, Black Crested Titmouse and a Blue Headed Vireo. There was still one more day, perhaps the third time would be the charm for the again Anti-Social Flycatcher.

Altamira Oriole
Black Crowned Night Heron
Golden Fronted Woodpecker
Green Jay
Great Kiskadee
Blue Headed Vireo

If I had done it earlier maybe I would have stayed longer on the second Social Flycatcher try but my feet were very wet and cold, so it was another stop at Walmart’s – for a cheap pair of waterproof boots and some new socks. I think the only time I have ever been in a Walmart has been to get something needed on a birding trip. Can’t say much for the atmosphere and don’t like the Walton family politics, but the prices are good and in the South, it is an easy option with one in every town. Got the boots and socks and realizing it was relatively close, I headed to the second possible Grooved Billed Ani spot – the Laguna Vista Nature Trail. Again an interesting spot. Again almost birdless and again no Anis. At least my feet were dry.

I headed back to the Valley Nature Center with a roadside stop in Port Isabel where I photographed a White Tailed Hawk – a Texas specialty. I was surprised at how few raptors I saw on the trip – maybe 20 or so with the largest number being Harris’s Hawks and American Kestrels. Home in Washington I would expect to see multiples of that on a single trip to Skagit County. At the Nature Center the Golden Crowned Warbler would again be noisy, active, skulky, and difficult to photograph. The pictures I got were at best only marginally better than the previous day. At least the golden crown was showing,

White Tailed Hawk
Golden Crowned Warbler

As I was leaving the Nature Center I saw a small group of Turkey Vultures flying over all headed in a straight line in the same direction. What started as a group of 4 or 5 kept growing – probably more than 40 by the time I left and there were probably more coming. So nothing new for day 2 but that was because day 1 had been so productive. Now with boots and a warmer jacket I felt ready for day 3 which was projected to have rain but not starting until late morning. I would head off to Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park hoping for a lifer Hook Billed Kite. That night I had a rare for me steak dinner at a Texas Roadhouse. Rare described the meat as well. I ordered medium rare but I swear the steak mooed when I cut into it.

Day 3 – Saturday January 22 Would this be the day – to finally see a Hook Billed Kite? Please. One of the people I follow on Facebook is Yve Morrell – an excellent and hard core bird who now lives in Georgia. She was part of the group that was in Oaxaca just after me and had many, many – did I say many – more birds than we had on our trip. She has also successfully chased just about every ABA Rarity this past month and had finally gotten her first Hook Billed Kite at Bentsen a few days before I left for my trip – maybe the last person to see one (she had two) at the Hawk Tower. It was that sighting that was the final factor in my deciding to make the trip because she acknowledged that she had missed it 4 times before. I, too, have missed it multiple times. Maybe today.

The Park did not open until 8:00 pm and the van would not be running until 9:00. I was there a bit earlier but waited until 8:00 to get my ID bracelet at the Visitor Center and then decided to walk the mile or so to the Hawk Tower. It was still cold, not too windy and not raining – at least not yet. On the way to the Hawk Tower, there were many typical South Texas species: Green Jays (many), Northern Cardinals (many), Plain Chachalacas (many), Golden Fronted Woodpeckers (almost as many), White Tipped, White Winged and Mourning Doves, Great Kiskadees (several), Altamira Orioles (several) and Blue Headed Vireo and Blue Gray Gnatcatcher. A distant perched raptor got some adrenaline going – slowed when I made it out as a Gray Hawk – only to be increased again as another raptor flew over and then slowed again as I made it out as a Harris’s Hawk. So no Hook Billed Kite on the way in. Guess it would have to be the Tower.

Altamira Orioles

I climbed up the tower and found one birder already there gazing out through his scope. Could it be? Nope – a distant Harris’s Hawk. The birder was Michael McCloy – a Ph.D. candidate in ornithology at Texas A & M, a world traveler, world birder and world mountain climber. If there was a chance of seeing a Hook Billed Kite this morning, he was about as good as I could hope for as another set of eyes. We heard Soras and a Virginia Rail in the pond/Resaca below and saw Blue Winged Teal, Common Gallinules, American Coots, Pied Billed and Least Grebes. A juvenile Gray Hawk was perched off in the distance and later more Harris’s Hawks flew by. Although it was not projected to start to rain until later, the first sprinkles started maybe 30 minutes after I arrived. Not bad – but not great. About an hour later a group of birders showed up with John Kaye – a long time volunteer at the Park and the birder with the longest Ebird list for Bentsen. He has seen Hook Billed Kites from the Tower dozens of times and had been with Yve Morrell when she had her lifer observation. If a Kite was to show this day, the team was in place to see it. Unfortunately just as the talent increased so, too, did the rain. It was getting miserable.

Gray Hawk Flyby
Least Grebe

The Kite watching was a zero, but the company was great as John and Michael shared stories from their vast experiences. Finally after 3 hours, it seemed to be time to leave. There had been no more raptors and the rain was getting heavy. The van was scheduled to be by soon and while in good weather I would have preferred to walk, with the rain, I was willing to be a wimp and ride. Just wasn’t meant to be this day. I don’t know when I will have a chance to return but maybe like for Yve, the 5th time will be the one.

Back at the Visitor Center I played hide and seek with a Buff Bellied Hummingbird missing a photo several times. Fortunately I had a photo from a previous visit in 2013. On that visit I also had my ABA lifer Clay Colored Thrush – not super rare but definitely uncommon in those days. As I got to my car I saw a group of five birds on the ground in front of me. They looked too big for sparrows but what else would be there in that number. It was a small flock of Clay Colored Thrushes. They are reported daily from many locations in South Texas now, but this was still surprising.

Now what? I had the Bat Falcon and good photos. I had seen the Golden Crowned Warbler with OK photos. I had seen the Social Flycatcher but no photos and I had not seen and thus not photographed the Groove Billed Ani. It was already past noon on my last day. There would be time for one more try for photos of the Flycatcher and the Ani. Back to Brownsville first. Just as I walked out on the Land Bridge, people were pointing long lenses at something in the trees next to the small pond, where I had had my brief glimpse of the Social Flycatcher before. I ran down the path and joined the group just in time to get a split second look and it was gone. No photo but it was there and maybe it would be in the open again. Three minutes later, one of the birders said “I got it”. The Flycatcher was buried but its yellow breast was visible. Then it was right above me – almost upside down on a branch only partially obstructed. As too often happens, by the time the camera focused, it was gone. That would be the closest I would come. I stayed for another hour – no sightings by anyone. There were fun photos of a Neotropic Cormorant and an Anhinga but that was it. I had given it my best – good visuals, heard it call and could check off a mega rarity for my ABA List – but time to admit defeat. On the way back to the car, I took some pictures of the many Black Bellied Whistling Ducks and Muscovy Ducks (domestic) that had been numerous on each previous visit as well.

Neotropic Cormorant
Black Bellied Whistling Duck
Muscovy Duck

There was still time for one more Ani try at the San Benito Wetlands. There was an Ebird report for Anis there the previous day. No photos and maybe a questionable description but worth another try – this time with good boots and barely any rain. As I rounded one of the paths between the ponds I saw two large black birds perched on the reeds. I really thought I might have some Anis but as I got close enough for a binocular view, they were Great Tailed Grackles…sigh. There would be no Anis this trip. There were many more birds at the Wetlands than on my earlier trip including the only Crested Caracara I saw and a number of waders – Black Crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, White Ibis (juveniles), and both Great and Snowy Egrets. A Peregrine Falcon sped by and there were several Loggerhead Shrikes in the area.

Crested Caracara
Great Egret
White Ibis
Loggerhead Shrike

My return flight the next morning was scheduled to depart at an ungodly 6:00 am. I got back to my hotel after the rental car desk closed so after a fast food dinner, I parked it and left the keys in a drop box and walked back to the hotel. I set my alarm for 4:15 a.m. and as I usually do woke up 10 minutes before it went off. No breakfast except for a banana and then I walked again to the airport with my luggage in tow. The flight was full and as had been the case in Seattle, there was an announced delay due to “minor mechanical” matters. Fortunately they were truthfully minor and we left only 15 minutes late – of no consequence for me since the layover in Dallas to make my connection was over 2 hours. The Dallas airport is huge so I had to take the tram to get to a different terminal to make my connection – but no problem and I was ready to go in plenty of time.

We boarded easily and somehow I had an open seat next to me – one of only 3 on the entire flight. Finally an easy trip – except – about an hour out of Seattle the pilot announced that there was low clearance at SeaTac Airport and due to interference with new 5G cell transmissions, this plane was not allowed to land unless the fog lifted. We delayed circling for 20 minutes and then got the news that we would detour to Boise, refuel and wait. There was more to it but the bottom line was that we finally got the clearance and landed in Seattle more than 2 and a half hours after scheduled arrival time. So I am not thrilled with the experience with American Airlines. If an updated altimeter was in the plane, we could have landed on schedule. Yes it is a real issue I guess and yes it should have been worked out months ago, and yes the Alaska Airline flights landed just fine that afternoon. But I was home. I had seen three of the four target lifers and had many fun intersections. My Continental ABA list was now at 746 species. I am not driven to get to 800 but 750 sounds good. I do not expect a chance to add 4 lifers on a single trip again – unless just maybe things align just right in Florida or the continuing surprises probably related to climate change bring more rarities north – or south – or west. And everything will be moot again if Covid- 20 or 21 or whatever shuts us down again.

Stay tuned.

Oaxaca, Mexico Part II – The Pacific

After 8 days in the mountains and in the City of Oaxaca, we did a major change of scenery and habitats and headed to Puerto Escondido – a port town and resort on Mexico’s Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca. It’s known for its many beaches and buzzing nightlife. The town’s central principal beach is lined with palm trees and thatch-roofed bars. Our hotel was near busy Zicatela Beach renowned for its Mexican Pipeline surf break. The change of scenery was matched by the change in weather – hot and humid (too hot and humid) – high SPF sun tan lotion was a must. Our hotel was on the beach and the view from our third floor room was terrific.

No time to bird when we arrived – a brief rest and respite from the sun and humidity and then it was time for dinner. The group split up and went separate ways as there were a number of options. A bit tired of tortillas (in every form) and mole, I opted for a hamburguesa and was very pleased. Cold Mexican beer helped. We all looked forward to the next morning – a short drive northwest along the coast to the Manialtepec Lagoon where we would board a small boat with guide and boatman Lalo and finally get close to the birds. It would be a spectacular morning.

Friday November 19 – We arrived early in bright sunshine but not yet too hot or humid. The lagoon is about 4 miles long lined primarily with mangroves. There were birds everywhere. I was particularly looking forward to this part of the trip for Cindy. When we first met, our first birding venture was to the Semiahmoo Spit in Blaine Washington very near the Canadian border. I have found that water birds are the best way to introduce newcomers to birding. The birds are relatively large, relatively close, often still or slow moving and often very charismatic. They also surprise new birders to see so many different species that are not just ducks or gulls but unique types of each and also some others that may seem like ducks but are really grebes, or loons or alcids – birds they had no idea existed. Cindy really enjoyed Semiahmoo with her first “wow” being a Black Oystercatcher and the second a male Harlequin Duck. Maybe she wasn’t hooked but she was interested for more. There were no ducks or grebes or loons or alcids at the lagoon but there were many others – all a treat. I was not expecting any lifers, although there were some longshots, but I was hoping for many photo opportunities and I was not disappointed.

The first birds we saw were two Greater Frigatebirds soaring overhead even before we launched and then almost as soon as we pushed off we we had an adult Anhinga – perched close by with its wings spread – drying out in the sun. Known as a “snake bird” due to its long and very thin neck, it was a particularly good first bird from the boat because the second bird was a juvenile or female Anhinga and the third was a closely related Neotropic Cormorant. Together they provided a great study in similarities and differences between species – an exercise in bird identification.

Adult Male Anhinga
Anhinga – Female or Immature
Neotropic Cormorant

Lalo was expert at spotting birds and maneuvering the boat quietly to the best position for great views and for photos. This was expertly demonstrated at a next sighting as he spied a Bare Throated Tiger Heron basking back in the mangroves. Unlike most of the species to be seen on this journey, the Tiger Heron is not found in the U.S. so there was great joy in finding one so quickly in the morning and so cooperative.

Bare Throated Tiger Heron

I am not going to try to report the observations in sequential order – irrelevant as good bird after good bird and good view after good view and good photo op after good photo op appeared at every inlet and bend in the lagoon. I have grouped the species by related groups with some commentary and picking out some special encounters. Enjoy!!

One early highlight was when Lalo moved the boat right into a flittering and perching flock of lovely Mangrove Swallows – another species not found in the U.S. Many were at eye level and some were too close for my camera’s focus. Later we would see more distant Gray Breasted Martins another swallow species not found in the U.S. although a single bird was seen and photographed in New York (of all places) by many excellent birders this past April.

Gray Breasted Martins

In addition to several Belted Kingfishers, common throughout the U.S., we had numerous good looks at two Kingfisher species that are prized ABA specialties in Texas and Arizona. The larger of the two is the Ringed Kingfisher and the smaller the Green Kingfisher. We saw several of each perched and fishing in the lagoon.

Without question the stars of the show were the large waders – herons, ibises, egrets and spoonbills. Altogether we had fourteen species – with many individuals of each – often foraging together. The only species (in addition to the aforementioned Bare Throated Tiger Heron) that is not found in the U.S. was a Boat Billed Heron. This experience was reminiscent of very good birding days in Florida or Texas but for a single day at a single place, this was probably the best.

Little Blue Heron
Boat Billed Heron
Great Blue Heron
Green Heron

We only saw a single species of gull but had 4 species of terns – all together on one sandbar that also gave us looks at 8 species of shorebirds. The only gull was a Laughing Gull (misidentified originally as a Franklin’s Gull) and the terns included Sandwich, Common, Elegant and Royal. (Some on the tour recorded Caspian Tern but I believe they were more likely Royal.) One photo was a lucky shot that shows all four tern species together with their different bills being great fieldmarks to help differentiate and identify them.

Laughing Gull
Tern Bills – Royal, Sandwich, Elegant and Common
Least Sandpiper
Black Necked Stilt
Spotted Sandpiper
Greater Yellowlegs

The remaining shorebirds seen included a much hoped for and surprise lifer – a Collared Plover. It had not even been listed on the trip materials – perhaps an oversight. It was the only plover that occurs regularly in the western hemisphere that I had not seen before. We first thought we had seen it from the boat but that turned out to be a basic plumaged Semipalmated Plover – a great disappointment when I checked my photos and had to change the ID. However, after getting out and then returning to the boat, I found a real one scurrying on the sand ahead of us.

Just after our stop at the sandbar we found a Common Black Hawk perched in the open. There had been a disappointing view of a flyby Common Black Hawk earlier in the trip with no photo. This time the photo was easy – a species I had seen many years ago in Arizona before I even had a camera. I still hope to get a photo in the ABA area someday.

Common Black Hawk

Throughout our ride we continuously saw more cormorants, many vultures (many Black and a few Turkey), several Ospreys, a Northern Harrier and Brown Pelicans. We also had both perched and flyby Orange Fronted Parrots and White Fronted Parakeets – both seen by me elsewhere in the tropics.

White Fronted Parrot
Orange Fronted Parakeet

In 2020 my only birding trip during the Covid doldrums was in November to Arizona. I was heavily masked; I knew the plane would be only half full and I could not resist the chance to add 3 species and a life photo to my ABA life lists. The hoped for photo was of a Northern Jacana – a bird I had seen in Texas in 1978 when they regularly occurred there. No camera and no photo in those days and then the species essentially disappeared from the U.S. with only a few records in the next 40 years. An adult Jacana was being seen regularly from the Ina Road bridge over the Santa Cruz River near Tucson. Also it was an incursion year for Ruddy Ground Doves in Arizona – a species I had never seen in the ABA and in fact had missed twice in Arizona before. There was also an outside chance to see a White Eared Hummingbird – another lifer. One had been seen regularly for the few weeks before I decided to go but had not been seen for a few days just prior to my departure – maybe? BUT the biggest appeal and the determining reason to go was a chance to see an Eared Quetzal. One or two had been reported regularly in the Chiricahuas for a few months – disappearing and then being relocated. There had been no other reliable reports of this species in the previous 12+ years – so I went with high hopes. I was successful in seeing all of the species and getting photos of all but the White Eared Hummingbird. I include this story because on the boat tip in the Manialtepec we had fabulous looks at at least 6 Northern Jacanas and a good look at a Ruddy Ground Dove. No Eared Quetzal and no White Eared Hummingbird – but I had gotten several decent photos of the latter earlier in the tour.

Ruddy Ground Dove

There would be two more great birds (for me) after we turned to head back. The first was a decent if distant look at two Cinnamon Rumped Seedeaters. I had less than satisfactory views of this species, a lifer, in Teotitlan without a photo. This was not a great photo but ID quality. This species was formerly called a White Collared Seedeater but that “species” was recently split into Morelet’s Seedeater (which is found at Salineno on the Rio Grande in Texas where I have seen it) and the renamed Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater (Photos of both are below.) The second species was a surprise West Mexican Chachalaca. The bigger surprise was that we had not seen this lifer elsewhere as it is pretty common and a large bird.

West Mexican Chachalaca – Poor Photo – but a Lifer

It had been a great trip – by far the best of the tour. All told I had 60 species with photos of 44 (and photos of 10 others ignored). New world lifers were White Fronted Parrot, West Mexican Chachalaca and Collared Plover and I also got my first photos of the Cinnamon Rumped Seedeater, Orange Fronted Parakeet and Common Blackhawk. More importantly it was great fun and Cindy loved it.

I am adding a non-birding photo that is a favorite from the trip – of a weathered and dignified gentleman that joined us as we waited at the reserve for our lunch. His image reminded me of how much we are outsiders visiting a land that has seen more than its share of outsiders. Perhaps tourists are better than conquistadores, but one wonders if all would have been much better if the Europeans and their progeny in the U.S. had never arrived.

After the great morning we had lunch and did a little inconsequential birding except adding our first good look at a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher and then returned to our hotels. I have not made any negative comments in this part of the report on this trip and after such a great morning, it carries less impact, but I am just not used to this approach to birding when I expect it to be all out all day. Granted the heat and humidity was perhaps limiting, but I am sure there were other places to go…not to be. Dinner that night was on our own. Following a recommendation from another member of the group I had a club sandwich – it was excellent.

Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

Saturday November 20 The next morning was another fun outing not fully focused on birds. First we had a chance for a little birding on the way to our targeted beach area. Two lifers were a Turquoise Crowned Hummingbird and a Yellow Winged Cacique. A truly awful photo of the first and the second was not much better.

Turquoise Crowned Hummingbird
Yellow Winged Cacique

The main visit of the day was to the Playa Escobilla Reserve where Olive Ridley Sea Turtles come in the hundreds of thousands to lay their eggs. We had made special arrangements to visit the area. Unfortunately it was not a day when the turtles were actually on the beach but we did get to watch and participate as hundreds of hatchlings that had been protected were released back to the sea. There were hundreds of turtles out in the ocean – perhaps to come in that night. The first two photos (not mine) show what might have been with the turtles on the beach, and the remainder are of the hatchlings being returned. I have read many accounts of seeing thousands of turtles on the beach coming to lay their eggs so it was a big disappointment not to actually see the adults.

Turtles Returning to Lay Eggs
Ridley Olive Sea Turtle
Hatchlings in Container
Hundreds of Turtles Ready to Go
Dash to the Sea
Laughing Gull Grabs a Turtle

Probably related to the turtles/hatchlings presence, the place was a major gathering place for vultures – hundreds of Black Vultures and a much smaller number of Turkey Vultures. Up the beach there were also dozens of Wood Storks.

Black Vulture
Wood Stork

We would have lunch at the reserve office but while we waited we had a chance to relax and have some juice from freshly cut coconuts and then we found a couple more birds including better looks with photos at White Throated Magpie Jays than we had had before and more importantly to me a chance to see and “photograph” some Groove Billed Ani’s. I had seen them in Texas many years ago, and more recently in Peru and Belize but without photos. They were buried in thick brush and I had to wait until everyone had their long distance scope views before trying to get close – so not very good photos but still better than nothing. We also heard a lifer Happy Wren. No visual and no photo but heard very clearly and distinctly.

White Throated Magpie Jay
Groove Billed Ani

This was to be the last birding of the visit as it was necessary to attend to a very important matter on the agenda – a trip to a clinic in Puerto Escondido where we all had Covid-19 tests which were required to be able to board flights to return to the U.S. It was a very efficient operation and fortunately we and everyone else had negative results. The group had a last dinner together and the next morning most of the group left for a 5+ hour trip back to Oaxaca where they would fly out the next day for their returns to the U.S.. Cindy and I remained in Puerto Escondido that night and our flight would be from there to Mexico City the next morning and then from there to Seattle.

Sunday November 21 On our extra day we swam in the Pacific – down near the surfers but not with them. The water was warm and very pleasant. That night we had excellent fish tacos and walked around the part of the Zicatela area with restaurants and clubs densely populated by mostly unmasked young people – many from Canada, the U.S. and Europe but also many from Mexico City and Guadalajara. We kept our distance and kept our masks on tight.

Monday November 22 The flights back home were easy and pleasant. The disappointments aside – mostly on the birding front – it had been a good trip. Not great – but no mishaps, no lost baggage, no illness and worthwhile on many fronts. I had picked up a number of chiggers in the field somehow and they remained an unpleasant reminder for about a week. Someday I will remember to tuck my pants into my socks. About that birding. All told I had seen or heard167 species for the week. That included 33 new species for my World Life List. Those numbers may sound significant, but they were both very disappointing to me. Especially after checking other reports from Oaxaca in the same general time period, there could and maybe should have been 2 or even three times as many new species and another 80 or more species overall as well – IF the focus of the group and tour had been more about birds. Granted to achieve that it would have meant giving up at least some of the cultural activities. So probably that was somewhat inevitable given the nature of the tour – the reason we chose it in the first place. But even discounting that, in addition to the quantitative disappointments it was really the qualitative disappointment for the birds we actually did hear or see that was more troubling. Far too many of them were heard only or seen poorly and at a distance. The big exception of course was the wonderful visit to the Manialtepec Lagoon described above.

I had only been to Mexico once before – to Mazatlán more than 40 years ago – no birds. I really did not think of Mexico as a place for birds as my dreams led more to South America and I have been fortunate to have ha some great trips there and look forward to more. Now, however I have had a taste of the richness of birdlife in Mexico and can seen other visits for birds and more in the future. There are many other places higher on my “want list” but as a result of credits for recently canceled trips, there is money in my Alaska Airlines account that has to be spent soon. We had squeezed in this trip to Oaxaca before the Omicron Covid variant had seriously raised its very ugly head. We have had two trips canceled and there will be no travel for awhile, but there is money in my Alaska Airlines account from those cancellations which must be spent in 2022. Alaska does fly to Mexico – just maybe…


In rereading this and the previous post I noted that I had omitted photos of some other interesting non-avian nature from the trip – plants, insects and reptiles in specific. I am not really into them and do not try to learn correct identifications but they are enjoyable and I include a group of photos – without identification or stories – from the many places that we visited.


Oaxaca, Mexico Part I – City and Mountains

I have mixed feelings and mixed reviews about this trip – probably why I have waited so long after returning to write this post. It was the first time that Cindy and I have traveled as part of a tour group. We chose the tour as a mix of birding and cultural attractions in an appealing place that neither of us had visited before. Promotional materials promised great weather, great food, great birds, great culture, interesting archaeological sights, vibrant arts and crafts, and a chance to visit local marketplaces and an interesting city. The tour would be 10 days (not including travel), was very reasonably priced and it seemed like the right mix of birding and other activities – a great first tour together. It did not exactly work out that way as the birding was disappointing – both objectively and compared to my expectations perhaps unduly influenced by my experience on many other tours that were admittedly focused on just birding for serious birders. Fortunately the other activities were great, so a good trip – just not a great one.

I am not going to identify the tour company because my negative review of the birding should not take away from the excellent job they did on all of the other parts of the tour. And I will add that it is not one of the larger major companies that I have traveled with before. It was just not a good match birding wise for me. The other people on the trip were either new birders or people with interests in birds but definitely not a driven interest to add to their lists, to get photos (I was the only person with a camera) or to push for closer/better views. Too often (almost always) the group settled for distant observations, often through scopes only, and spent far too much time looking at the same birds over and over. Repeatedly it was “What is that bird?” “It’s a Cassin’s (or Tropical) Kingbird”. (Yes, just like the dozens of Kingbirds that we saw before.) There were a couple of brief early morning walks before breakfast but too often (again almost always) the day did not start until well past the prime time for birding and big/long breakfasts and long lunches meant that less than ideal time was spent birding. That would have been fine on our great visits to archaeological sites or to craft studios – but birding is an early morning game – just not the game we were not playing.

My last negative comment on the birding part of the trip – but one that is emblematic of my disappointment relates to both quantity and quality. In a pre-trip analysis of possibilities, I identified over 80 species that were possible lifers for me. In the promotional material 27 of those species were highlighted as birds that “might be seen”. Of those 27, 16 were not seen at all. Another was seen only by myself and one of the leaders – apart from the group and then only for a split second. I saw four of the others on my own early morning walks (before the group breakfast) and had barely ID quality looks at two others. Not a great batting average. And it is not because the birds were not around. Some friends visited pretty much the same area about two weeks later. Granted they are great birders and their tour was hard driving looking for special birds and was not including other non-birding activities. I don’t have their final counts but know that in addition to all the birds we saw, they saw more than 50 species we did not that would have been lifers for me. (Sigh…) We did have some good birds and one extraordinary visit to a magical lagoon (which will be reported in the second part of this post). Others may have felt it was a great birding experience. Just not a good match for me. So much for the negative. Enough of that as there were lots of positives to share.

Wednesday November 10 – Cindy and I arrived in Oaxaca City a day early both to get some rest and to work better with flight schedules. We stayed at the Hotel con Corazon an OK hotel near the central market area and got in around 9:00 pm. We had not had dinner and asked the hotel folks for a recommendation. They sent us to a place about three blocks away called Tlayudas El Negro. Tlayudas are a Oaxacan specialty sometimes called a Oaxacan pizza. They are basically large tortillas flat on the plate with varying ingredients on top and usually with a sauce – mole or salsa. Although it was 9:30 when we got there, it was a festive atmosphere with local costumed dancers, music and a fun Day of the Dead theme. Many patrons joined in. We were tempted to join in but refrained. Maybe if we had had Margaritas earlier… Welcome to Oaxaca!!!

We were to be picked up the next afternoon and taken (with three other tour members) to the village of Teotitlan del Valle, where the tour would formally begin, so we had the next day to explore Oaxaca City – also called Oaxaca de Juarez. The State of Oaxaca has a population over 4 million and the Oaxaca Metropolitan area is about 700,000. Guidebooks describe special places to see, but mostly we wanted to just experience the atmosphere of the city, its markets, its restaurants and shops.

Thursday November 11. After breakfast, we headed to the Zocalo – the heart of the City with arcades, market stalls, parks, no cars, thousands of people – local and tourists, restaurants and cafes, music and color everywhere. It could hardly have been more different than our Edmonds home – people, goods, economy, architecture, food and everything else. Really fun.

Lunch was at an open air café on the main square with music in the air and people-watching as a main activity. I went for some Chorizo and Cindy had Enchilada Verde – tasty but not a repeat later. There will be more on the food later in this post. More importantly though, I had a chance to try some local “hot chocolate” getting to stir it myself – rich, creamy, chocolatey and good.

We especially enjoyed the couple at the next table.

Before leaving for our trip we had eaten at a Oaxacan restaurant in Edmonds and tried a Oaxacan specialty – chapulines – fried grasshoppers. They were available (by the thousands) at many stalls in the marketplace but this time we passed – once was enough. By the way as you can see in these pictures, mask wearing was taken seriously in Oaxaca. With maybe a single exception everyone we saw in the markets, on the streets and everywhere was wearing a mask. If only such were true in the U.S.

Chapulines – Fried Grasshoppers

There were dozens, probably hundreds of small stalls and shops in many blocks of markets – stacks of fresh fruit, or vegetables and particularly peppers. There was also a lot of meat, chickens and turkeys (live) and goods of every kind. Toys, clothing, electronic goods – everything. There were many stalls with the same goods and seemingly not many buyers and we wondered how anyone made any money. The sad truth is that many people do not. At least the cost of living is pretty low (certainly compared to the U.S,) for example an excellent latte was only $1.50 and beers were maybe $3.00. Two fish tacos were $4.25 (with sides).

Late in the afternoon we were picked up and headed off to Teotitlan where we would be spending the next few nights. A stop was made along the way so that people good get beer or wine which would not be available at our B&B. Not a necessity for me but for others, yes. We ended up going to a Walmart (so much for local color) for the purchase. Every person was masked and temperatures were taken of everyone begore entering. Teotitlan, in the foothills about 35 miles from Oaxaca, is a weaving center famous for naturally dyed carpets. We were staying at the La Cupula B&B owned by master weaver Demetrio Bautista. The area around La Cupula is good bird habitat and there was no way I was going to wait until dinner to start birding, so I ventured out on my own to explore. I was lucky to pick up my first lifer for the trip, a Greenish Elaenia, but the sun was going down so it was a short exploration. We had dinner there with 3 other tour members before the remainder of the group arrived and also had a short course on Mezcal, a potent alcoholic beverage made from agave cactus which are grown and harvested in the area. The remainder of the group arrived on schedule and after introductions and a briefing on what would follow on the tour, we retired to our comfortable rooms with breakfast scheduled for 9 the next morning.

Friday November 12. That late breakfast gave the late arrivers on Wednesday time to acclimate, but there was no way I could wait that long so I got out early after some coffee (excellent). In about 90 minutes I found 20 species including 4 more lifers: Dusky Hummingbird, Gray Breasted Woodpecker, Boucard’s Wren and White Throated Towhee. It turned out it would be my best looks for all of these species. This would often be the case on the trip – finding a number of species on my own or at least getting better looks alone due to the approach for the tour described earlier – me not being satisfied with long distance views.

Gray Breasted Woodpecker
White Throated Towhee
Boucard’s Wren

There would be many other sightings with the tour group, but again my best picture was on the morning walk on my own of a favorite anywhere – Vermilion Flycatcher.

Vermilion Flycatcher

With that late breakfast the first official tour stop was not until 10:30 at a small man-made lake not far from town. Among the 19 species seen there was another lifer – one that I would see and photograph almost daily on the tour – Berylline Hummingbird. Someday I still hope to find one in Arizona, but so far it has eluded me there.

Berylline Hummingbird (picture from the next morning)

Our next stops were in the mountains at elevations over 6000 feet, and while they included maybe my favorite bird of the trip, it was also a very disappointing day as the realities of the approach of the group as well as maybe just a bird poor day were very frustrating. The favorite bird was a Red Warbler – striking with its white cheek patch. I was lucky to get a decent photo as it was constantly in and out of dense foliage and was at least 50 yards away. A tougher bird to see was a Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. Somehow I picked it out of the thick cover and got most of the others of the group onto it – even if briefly and again at a distance.

Red Warbler
Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer

A couple of people had a brief look at a Rufous-capped Warbler. I missed it but had seen one in Arizona several years ago – so at least I had not missed a lifer.

We returned to La Cupula and did some birding in the area behind the B&B where I had birded the evening before and that morning before the group left. There were a number of flycatchers: Tropical and Cassin’s Kingbirds, Great Kiskadee, Greater Pewee and Social Flycatchers, with the best probably a Thick Billed Kingbird. I have seen them in Arizona at the famous Roadside Picnic area. There would be several others on the trip. As we were returning almost on cue a Lesser Nighthawk flew by. The people from the group who joined the walk got their first Boucard’s Wrens – possibly the same ones in the same place I had them earlier.

Thick Billed Kingbird

That evening we had a demonstration by Demetrio on how the beautiful carpets are made. All of the designs incorporate Zapotec motifs and all of the dyes are natural. It was fascinating to see how each color is made from the natural ingredients – lessons in chemistry and biology. Red comes from Cochineal beetles. blue from indigo and yellow from Marigolds with shading coming by adding acids (lime juice) or zinc. We watched him at work on one of his beautiful looms and learned that to make a single 5′ x 7′ rug could take 3 months – not including time for spinning the yarns or dyeing them.

Creating the dyes
Demetrio at work

Saturday November 13. The next morning I again went out on my own before breakfast) now a little “earlier” at 7:30. Again there were many Lark Sparrows and Curve Billed Thrashers, and Boucard’s Wrens. I got my first photo of a Dusky Hummingbird but my surprise bird was an unexpected Clay Colored Sparrow. They are seen each year in a few places in Washington but uncommon there. Regular in the Teotitlan area.

Lark Sparrow
Clay Colored Sparrow
Curve Billed Thrasher
Dusky Hummingbird

After breakfast we headed to the important archaeological site at Yagul where buildings were first constructed 500-700 AD with the ruins on site from the 13th to 16th centuries. This is an important historical site for the Zapotec culture – which is still alive in the mountains of Oaxaca. Later that day we also visited the archaeological site at Mitla and two days later we visited the much more impressive and larger site at Monte Alban. I will add much better photos from that visit. At Yagul there were also some birds with three more lifers: Beautiful Hummingbird, Gray Crowned Woodpecker and Black Vented Oriole. The view of the Woodpecker was distant and fleeting – no photo. The Black Vented Oriole was also distant but at least I got an ID photo. I can only blame myself for missing a good photo of the Beautiful Hummingbird – operator error. Nothing unusual or new bird-wise at Mitla and then it was back to La Cupula again.

Black Vented Oriole

Sunday November 14 The following morning about half the group finally got out early before breakfast to bird the area below the B and B. Maybe it was because of the size of the group, but it was very quiet with just 9 species and the only new bird being a Loggerhead Shrike. Granted I had spent much more time in the area on my walks alone but I had more than 30 species on those walks and I am sure I missed many by not knowing some calls. We bid adieu to La Cupula. It really had been a wonderful place to stay with good rooms and great hospitality. We purchased a rug from Demetrio which is now in our Edmonds kitchen. We wish we had bought others – beautiful pieces.

A little critical reflection: I had seen 12 lifers in those first three days and perhaps I should have been happy about that but I had expected many more with much better looks/interactions. But the food had been good, the archaeological sites interesting and the chance to learn about textiles had been wonderful. Cindy convinced me to lower expectations and reprioritize. So I did – well, mostly.

Our itinerary would include some more mountain birding in the Sierra Norte Highlands, a stop at the bustling market town of Tlacoula and then arrival in the City of Oaxaca. At one stop on the way to Tlacoula we had one of my favorite birds of the trip – a Gray Silky Flycatcher – closely related to the Phainopeplas of the Southwest in the U.S. – Lifer #13. We had a brief look at a Tufted Flycatcher and a few people got an equally brief look at a Buff Breasted Flycatcher – no photos. I had seen and photographed both of these flycatchers in Carr Canyon in Arizona in August 2017 so was not all that disappointed to miss photos here.

Gray Silky Flycatcher

Visiting the Tlacoula market was really fun – much like the Zocalo in Oaxaca but much much denser with more produce and especially meats, fewer tourists and food stalls rather than restaurants – more “organic”. Here, people were seemingly buying more goods than at Oaxaca and like Oaxaca, everyone was masked. We were struck by the number of stalls selling meat – mostly pork and chicken and a little beef. Some was being cooked on open charcoal grills, but mostly uncooked with constant attention to keep flies away. Unlike in Oaxaca, our group stood out as tourists and not Mexican.

That afternoon on the way to Oaxaca we made a mountain stop at Camino La Cumbre – Oeste. There we had another Red Warbler and another lifer – a Crescent Chested Warbler. I had a decent look at the latter but was unable to get a good photo as the bird darted from branch to branch and was never in the open. One has been seen this year in Arizona and I hope to add it to my ABA list someday. I am attaching a photo of one of several Crescent Chested Warblers seen by Laura Keene and others on her tour group which I have referred to at the start of this post. A very striking bird. The most frustrating part of the day was at a second mountain stop where we heard distant calls from Jays but no visuals until a couple of flocks flew overhead chattering – brief views only. These were almost certainly Dwarf Jays (a lifer) but possibly could have been White Throated Jays (also a lifer) which can be in the same habitat but are less common and less likely to be in larger flocks. There seemed to be little interest in actually getting good visuals and certainly no playback was used to entice them. They are lovely birds, so a major disappointment. Another not very birdy day at all and another stress was that my glasses and binoculars and camera were continuously fogged up making the few chances there to actually see anything extremely difficult and sometimes impossible.

Crescent Chested Warbler – Photo by Laura Keene

We checked in to our Hotel and had dinner with the group.

Monday November 15 The next morning was the archaeological highlight of the trip with a morning visit to Monte Alban. The following is the description of this World Heritage Site on the UNESCO website: “Monte Alban is the most important archaeological site of the Valley of Oaxaca. Inhabited over a period of 1,500 years by a succession of peoples – Olmecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs – the terraces, dams, canals, pyramids and artificial mounds of Monte Albán were literally carved out of the mountain and are the symbols of a sacred topography. The grand Zapotec capital flourished for thirteen centuries, from the year 500 B.C to 850 A.D. when, for reasons that have not been established, its eventual abandonment began. The archaeological site is known for its unique dimensions which exhibit the basic chronology and artistic style of the region and for the remains of magnificent temples, ball court, tombs and bas-reliefs with hieroglyphic inscriptions. The main part of the ceremonial centre which forms a 300 m esplanade running north-south with a platform at either end was constructed during the Monte Albán II (c. 300 BC-AD 100) and the Monte Albán III phases. Phase II corresponds to the urbanization of the site and the domination of the environment by the construction of terraces on the sides of the hills, and the development of a system of dams and conduits. The final phases of Monte Albán IV and V were marked by the transformation of the sacred city into a fortified town. Monte Albán represents a civilization of knowledge, traditions and artistic expressions. Excellent planning is evidenced in the position of the line buildings erected north to south, harmonized with both empty spaces and volumes. It showcases the remarkable architectural design of the site in both Mesoamerica and worldwide urbanism.” These photos give only a hint of the site in its current partially restored state and let our imagination try to picture what it looked like in its past splendor.

Towards the end our visit, I went off with one of our guides to get in some birding. It was “almost” a great move. The guide knew a side trail that was promising and started with a large tree against a rocky hill. As we got to the tree, a sparrow was foraging on the ground. Unfortunately the trail was closed off and as we got to the wire blocking access the sparrow flew up into the tree – in the open for a split second and then it was gone, The momentary view was sufficient to see the strong facial pattern of a Oaxaca Sparrow – an endemic that was high on my want list for the trip. Then it was gone – no photo and especially disappointing since it was the only Oaxaca Sparrow seen on the entire trip despite often being in perfect habitat. Sigh…

We returned to Oaxaca with a chance to explore the City. Cindy and I had done that on our first day so we went to different places including a visit to the Catedral Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Architecturally different but largely thematically the same as most major cathedrals. Later we visited a lovely small textile museum with truly exquisite pieces. A mélange of photos.

On our own that night we enjoyed a potent Mezcalrita (Margarita with Mezcal) and dinner at a small restaurant and then strolled the city. It was a very lovely temperature without humidity and the atmosphere was very pleasant and we easily could have believed ourselves to be somewhere in Europe. As mentioned before, prices were low throughout the trip at least for food and drink. In general dinner for two was less than $25.00 and drinks were much less than in the U.S.


Tuesday November 16 Leaving Oaxaca we would travel to the Sierra Madre del Sur with a stop in the morning at the studio of Jacobo and Maria Angeles in the town of San Martin Tilcajete – famous for Alebrijes – beautifully and intricately painted carvings of fanciful animal figures using copal wood and mostly natural colorings. We were given a demonstration of each step of the production process and got to see many spectacular pieces – finished and in process. I would have loved to bring a piece home but found that the shipping costs were just too high. The photos are of the process and the products.

The Studio

This owl is similar to the one I tried to buy at the studio. It is available online with hundreds of other carvings at prices that range from $25 to many thousands of dollars. Tempting although not the same as buying it on the trip itself directly from the studio.

That afternoon was another somewhat disappointing birding time despite adding 5 lifers. We had checked in at the Puesta del Sol Restaurant and Cabanas and did some birding in the area – undoubtedly our best hummingbird experience of the trip. Also our best lodging in many ways – a lovely private cabana set in the forest with a lovely view. I guess it was a compliment that the leaders gave us the cabin the furthest down a steep hill. It was a challenge (barely met) hauling our suitcases back up when we left – tough breathing at more than 8000 feet up.

La Cabanas Puesta del Sol

Definitely our best hummingbirds. Species seen were Mexican Violetear, Bumblebee Hummingbird, White Eared Hummingbird and Berylline Hummingbird. The first two were lifers with great looks at the latter and maybe only a very poor two second view of the former. There seemed to be White Eared hummers everywhere but it was very hard to get photos. I guess the disappointment was mostly because it was clearly great habitat but like almost everywhere else on our trip there were no feeders. If the places we stayed (or visited) had feeders I think there would have been great birding and photo ops. It just is not done there.

Bumblebee Hummingbird

The look at the Violetear may have been poor and brief, but at least it was a look. Our guide got a quick look at a Rufous Capped Brushfinch but for me it was a single heard only – distinctive enough but it sure would have been nice to get a look and of course a photo. In the ABA I would not have included it as a new lifer. Another heard only lifer was a Long Tailed Wood Partridge. This is a reclusive species I did not expect to see on the tour. Well no visual but several very clear good calls. The last lifer was a Brown Backed Solitaire barely visible in the fading light but an okay ID photo and also again distinctive calls.

Brown Backed Solitaire

The group had dinner that night at an Italian Restaurant -La Taberna de Los Duendes – Tavern of the Goblins in San Jose del Pacifico. We were a bit tired of the Mexican fare we had until then so it was a welcomed change. Cindy ordered steak and I had a pasta dish. The food was excellent and very reasonably priced – but the servings were HUMONGOUS!! I could barely finish half of mine even though it was one of the best I have had. Cindy barely made it through a third of her meal which was also excellent. Maybe a bit more expensive than other meals we had – maybe $40 for the two together, but we would have been happy paying the same price for half the quantity. Cindy had taken a “doggie bag” intending to give it owners of a shy but beautiful dog we had seen earlier. A well fed dog was waiting outside the restaurant as we departed. Cindy could not resist and parted with part of the steak. We are sure the dog knew this drill from previous overstuffed patrons.


Wednesday November 17 The next morning some of the group got out before breakfast and we were rewarded with another Bumblebee Hummingbird and another Brown Backed Solitaire (again hidden in the foliage) and views of a couple of Slate Throated Redstarts – another lifer. I had decent views but had trouble getting a decent picture of the very active warbler. It is closely related to the Painted Redstart – another Arizona specialty and a species I have seen once in Washington – the only record there. Although I have seen many in Arizona, I have always had trouble getting a good photo – partially because of its high activity level but I also think because the camera’s autofocus has trouble with its color mix – at least that’s my excuse and one I will use for this photo as well.

Slate Throated Redstart

We birded the same area after breakfast and then boarded our van and headed out. We continued to have good birds and I added another 4 lifers and got a great photo of a species I had first seen in Costa Rica in 1997 and which only very rarely appears in the U.S. – a Flame Colored Tanager – hopefully someday I will see one there. The new lifers were Cinnamon Hummingbird, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Rufous Naped Wren and the oddly named Common Chlorospingus.

Cinnamon Hummingbird
Olivaceous Woodcreeper
Rufous Naped Wren
Common Chlorospingus
Flame Colored Tanager

It may have been our best birding day so far but there would be a big disappointment. Willy, our eagle eyed van driver had spotted a number of good birds during our trip – just great eyes – no binoculars. As we drove on a main road – with very little traffic, he spotted a trogon. Trogons are of course among the most highly treasured birds in the tropics. We stopped and strained for visuals out the windows. Had I been on my own (or possibly on a tour with a group with a different focus/approach) I would have found a way to get out of the van for a good look. It was not to be and I was only able to get a contorted view and a photo through the window in the few seconds before we moved on. Unfortunately the poor photo confirmed that it was “only” a Collared Trogon and not the more highly sought after Mountain Trogon which would have been a lifer. Sadly there would be no more Trogons on the trip.

We arrived at our next lodging Finca Don Gabriel around 4:00 and after settling in got in a little birding on the grounds. More than 200 Vaux’s Swifts put on quite a show and we added several species to our trip list including a lifer heard only Collared Forest Falcon. A Common Black Hawk flew overhead but I was not quick enough to get a photo. It is a species I have seen once in the ABA area but with no photo. The disappointment of the missed photo would be more than made up for later in the tour. We were treated to several tropical species that I have seen elsewhere: Red Legged Honeycreepers, Masked Tityra, Boat Billed Flycatcher and a Dusky Capped Flycatcher. I had seen the latter in Arizona a couple of times as well as in Costa Rica, Peru and Brazil as well as a first state record ever in Washington State. I had also seen the others in Costa Rica, Trinidad, Peru, Brazil and/or Belize.

Red Legged Honeycreeper Female
Boat Billed Flycatcher

Thursday November 18 The good birding continued the next morning beginning with two calling Mottled Owls, and several Northern Emerald Toucanets, the former a lifer and the latter previously seen in Costa Rica and Belize. A flock of lifer Orange Fronted Parakeets flew over – no picture but that would be remedied later. Everyone got great looks at an Ivory Billed Woodcreeper – another species I had seen previously in Belize. There was some dispute over a vireo sighting with it first being thought to be a Black Capped Vireo. My picture unfortunately showed it to be the more common Blue Headed Vireo.

Northern Emerald Toucanet
Ivory Billed Woodcreeper

After breakfast, we were back on the road and at our first stop Oaxaca El Zapote-Copalita I had three more lifers – heard only Russet Crowned Motmot and Golden Cheeked Woodpecker and a very distant view of White Throated Magpie Jays. I would get a photo of the Jays later and somehow either missed or deleted a photo of the Woodpecker again seen later. A Squirrel Cuckoo seen buried in the foliage was a great trip bird – not a lifer as I had seen them on Brazil, Peru and Costa Rica. We had an essentially bird-less lunch on the road and continued the long drive to the Coast and our lodging for the next two nights at Puerto Escondido. That story will be told in Part II of this post.

I had seen 119 species of which 28 were added to my World Life List. There were a few good photos but too many misses. The birding and certainly the photography would get better. There was no question however that we had some wonderful non-birding experiences: markets, ruins and craft centers being the highlights. The scenery had been beautiful, the places we stayed very nice and all the people we met very friendly. There had been no glitches, no problems. Fortunately this would continue.

The Species Do Add Up

In 2018 and 2019 much of my birding was tied to my 50/50/50 quest to find 50 species on 50 individual days in each of the 50 American states. Although I often did so on single days on my own, an essential part of the adventure was to go out with local birders on the designated day – not just to gain from their expertise but also to experience the diversity of birders and birding throughout our incredibly diverse country. We were successful in finding 50 species usually with many species to spare. In my wrap up I acknowledged that I have seen 50 species on a single day many times in my home state of Washington. When you are on familiar turf visiting good areas most times of the year it is not that hard to do. Yesterday did not start out that way, but that did become the goal as I again headed north to Fir Island hoping for something special at Wyle Slough or Hayton Reserve – maybe a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper which has continued to confound me this year.

Wylie Slough Sharp Tailed Sandpiper – 2018

When yet again I failed to correctly decipher the tidal pattern in the area, the hopes for something special morphed into just enjoying the beautiful day, seeing what I could find. The day started at Wylie Slough where the only shorebirds were the normal fare – Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Long Billed Dowitchers, Killdeer and Western Sandpipers and an often present but more often missed Wilson’s Snipe. No Baird’s, no Pectorals or Semipalmated and definitely no Sharp Tailed. But one of the many blackbirds that flew over was a Yellow Headed Blackbird – it and a Lincoln’s Sparrow were good birds for the area. The pig-like grunt of a Virginia Rail confirmed its presence and the ever present but E-bird rare Black Phoebe was seen flycatching at the parking area – another good “tick”.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs – Wylie Slough
Yellow Rumped Warbler – Wylie Slough
Hooded Merganser with Fish – Wylie Slough

Although the tide was completely wrong, there were birds at Hayton – hundreds or even thousands of them, but they were mostly scope views only – into the sun and with heat shimmers making viewing difficult. There were at least a thousand shorebirds but almost entirely unidentifiable even at 30X magnification. But I got lucky and the Pacific Golden Plover that has been there for several days just happened to catch some sun as my scope picked out the few “larger” birds in the distant mud, joined by a few Black Bellied Plovers. Odds are decent that there may have been something “good” among the other shorebirds but I just could not make out anything in detail. The same was true for waterfowl. Definitely some Mallards and Canada Geese, but what were those other hundreds of ducks? Green Winged Teal, yes but I was not quite plugged in to a goal of 50+ species for the day, so I just noted “duck sp.” on Ebird.

I had not yet thought to try for a 50 species day but when I ended the stay at Hayton Reserve, I was surprised to find that I had seen 33 species at Wylie and even with the poor tide and without yet trying I had added 10 species for the day at Hayton including a Merlin that zipped right past me and a Savannah Sparrow that dove for cover as it did. I always like having a ‘target” for my day and decided I would go for that 50 species goal, even though I was not planning to be out all day. Although I expected the tide would be wrong there. too, I thought I would try for new shorebirds at Channel Drive where a few days earlier there had been a number of Semipalmated and Baird’s Sandpipers. No mud at all, thus no shorebirds, but there were hundreds of swallows including both Cliff and Northern Rough Winged in the area and with a Raven and Red Tailed Hawk, I was now at 47 species for the day. Surely there would be a few more.

Call me thick or call me obstinate or more positively call me determined. I still wanted to find some special shorebirds so I stopped at Eide Road as I headed home. A Belted Kingfisher was on a shrub as I turned into the area and an American Kestrel was perched on the wire right above the parking lot and the always present Rock Pigeons were there as well. So that got me to 50 species before even getting out of the car, but ending a day with a Rock Pigeon would just not do. Surely there had to be something out there even though the water level was high there as well. I saw a few shorebirds as I scanned the area so I got out the camera and scope and hiked part way out the dike. A small group of peeps included both Least and Western Sandpipers and a Semipalmated Plover was foraging near some Black Bellied Plovers. There may have been some Least Sandpipers at Wylie Slough and I am sure there were some in the massive distant group at Hayton, but these were for sure and with the Semipalmated Plover were new of the day. There was a massive flock of Caspian Terns about 300 yards out and a few Short Billed (formerly Mew) Gulls were mixed in – another add for the day.

Semipalmated Plover – Eide Road
Black Bellied Plover – Eide Road
American Kestrel – Eide Road

As I was about to return to the car, I saw two birders with bins and a scope coming towards me. They had been birding where the dike turns west and I wondered if they had seen something special. It turned out they had – or maybe they had. They thought they had seen a juvenile Elegant Tern in the group of 100+ Caspian Terns. There are no records of Elegant Tern in Washington for 2021 and they have never been reported in Snohomish County, so this would have been a mega rarity. These were experienced birders and based their ID on the bill being yellower and shorter than the Caspian’s and most importantly on yellowish legs. With fingers crossed I carefully scanned the entire flock in my scope with them but found no individual with those fieldmarks which would be good for a juvenile Elegant Tern. They had taken some very distant photos and wanted to check them before posting on Ebird. I have not seen any such reports on Ebird last night or today, so I guess the photos were not supportive. That did add some adrenalin to the day for sure. My picture below is from 2015, the last time I have seen them in Washington – at the Tokeland Marina which used to be the go to spot for them in the State.

Elegant Terns – Tokeland Marina 2015

On the way back to the car, I had a couple of Purple Finches and a Cedar Waxwing, so I was now at 55 species for the day, but without question I would have traded them all for a single Elegant Tern. Sigh…

Before getting home, I decided I would stop at the Edmonds Fishing Pier hoping to add a few more ticks for the day list. As I was walking out to the pier, a woman with binoculars asked me if I was coming to see the Auklet. She said a man named “Steve” out there could show me. I did not know her and assumed she was referring to a Rhinoceros Auklet which are common there. Turned out that “Steve” was good friend Steve Pink and he indeed had his scope on a small alcid maybe 150 yards out. He was trying to make it into a Cassin’s Auklet – very rare but not impossible there and which had been reported flying by earlier in the day. Sadly we could only ID it as a Marbled Murrelet – always nice to see but not at all rare. About a minute after Steve said he had seen a Parasitic Jaeger there the previous day, one flew right overhead. It was so quick I could not get my camera on it. The one the day earlier had been a dark form and this was a light form adult–beautiful bird. The Murrelet and Jaeger were of course new for the day, as were a Red Necked Grebe, Heerman’s Gulls, Surf Scoters, Pigeon Guillemots, an Osprey and a Pelagic Cormorant. Steve was heading to Lake Ballinger where Ann Marie Wood was going to show him a roosting spot for a Barn Owl that had been found by another Edmonds birder, Alan Knue.

I joined Steve and Ann Marie took us to the tree where the owl had been roosting. We found several “regurgitated pellets” and some whitewash (aka owl poop) and I saw a couple of feathers in the branches but we could not locate the owl – until after maybe 10 minutes, Ann Marie somehow found its heart shaped faced buried deeply in the foliage. Owls are always special and it was nice to see it with Steve and Ann Marie, two of the people I have missed most during the COVID caused isolation of the past 18 months.

Buried Barn Owl – Lake Ballinger

Back home I added Anna’s Hummingbird and Spotted Towhee to the day’s list which reached 66 species and it was only 2:00 pm – not even 5 hours of birding. And of course, my thoughts turned to what “might have been”. Even without a Sharp Tailed Sandpiper or an Elegant Tern, and staying just in the areas where I had birded there were so many “could-have-beens” with either some luck and more effort. Birds that were not seen but would have been for sure adds include: House Sparrow, Bald Eagle, Double Crested Cormorant, Rhinoceros Auklet, Bewick’s and Marsh Wrens, Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers, Common Yellowthroat, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Harlequin Duck, American Coot, California and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Mourning Dove, Short Billed Dowitcher, Common Murre, Turkey Vulture, Northern Flicker, Chestnut Backed Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Bushtit, and Dark Eyed Junco. At least another 10 or so would be possible with hard work. So…a hundred species in a day is definitely doable. September is only half way done – maybe it’s worth a try.