Up early, a big breakfast with fresh fruits which we would have every day on this trip, good coffee and we were ready to go heading to two sanctuaries that are part of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation: Rio Silanche and the Milpe Bird Sanctuary. To clarify a bit, this was our second day of real birding but our third day in Ecuador. All following posts will give the day as if it was from the beginning. We would bird at other spots along the way as well – all within an hour or so of Sachatamia. We started birding before 7:00 a.m. and here it gets a little complicated. My biggest (and almost only) negative about our trip was that I did not use internet connectivity except when WIFI was available (at all the lodges) and our guide did not use Ebird. Thus it was very difficult to keep accurate accounts of what was seen where. As a result for most of the trip I have accurate bird lists for each day but not necessarily accurate as to specific locations. So this post will cover all of the birds seen on Day 2 with few details.
We were still in Ecuador of course, so there were still many hummingbirds – 11 species to be exact with 5 new ones for Ecuador and 4 of those were Lifers. Similarly there were lots of tanagers – 8 species plus three closely related Dacnis species. Six from this group were Lifers as well. Again here are some representative photos with tanagers first and then some hummingbirds.
A quick comment or two about photo identification. Photos came fast and furious in the field and by far the majority of photos were poor (or worse), but if you are lucky and take enough photos, some will turn out ok. But that doesn’t mean you can remember which species is in the photo, especially for hummingbirds which are often in mixed groups of many, moving fast, and somewhat similar in appearance especially as the colors change in the light and iridescent blues and purples and greens are often just dark. I did not ID photos until I came back home and then with the help of my checklists, two or three guidebooks and the Merlin Photo ID app I made out most of them. That said, there is a good chance that I will have made some errors. Corrections are welcome – but in any event, hopefully readers will enjoy them.
Another comment about photos: Birds at the feeders were often relatively close, others quite distant. Even at feeders, birds and especially hummingbirds are pretty small and it takes a lot of magnification by the camera and processing later to make the images seen in the photos I include in these blog posts. Generally I was taking photos at full extension of my 100-500 mm lens – so already about a 10X magnification and then cropping would magnify the images again usually at least 2 to 4 times and often much more. Thus birds that might barely be visible with our naked eye and still small viewed through binoculars are much larger in the photos presented. I have not used digiscoping through a spotting scope but our guide did have one and often got great pictures.
This day we would see (or hear) 64 species of which 26 were Lifers. Many people consider hummingbirds and tanagers to be exotic or charismatic – certainly colorful. Before departing I had promised Cindy that we would see many birds that were colorful and/or exotic and the hummers and tanagers had delivered on that promise, and this day we added specialty birds, that like especially the Andean Guan and Crimson Rumped Toucanet of the previous day were further deliveries on that promise. Birds such as motmots, trogons, toucans, parrots, parakeets and Aracaris just seem “foreign” making them exotic in addition to their being colorful and beautiful. Today we had lots of appealing species.
Those are all pretty showy birds and definitely feel tropical. Some others that were definitely noticeable include the Lineated Woodpecker, Red Billed Scythebill, Orange Billed Sparrow and Orange Fronted Barbet.
Of course not all of the birds were colorful, dramatic, or even seemingly tropical. Our list included several flycatchers/tyrannulets and there were also several species that were either heard only – Dusky Pigeon and Little Tinamou – or seen but not photographed. Among the latter were Pallid Dove which was high on my “want list” so missing that photo as it was simply too distant and gone too quickly, was disappointing. Others seen but not photographed were White Bearded Manakin, Yellow-Throated Nightingale Thrush and Purple Throated Fruitcrow.
One of the strangest bird groups to me were the Piculets – miniature “almost woodpeckers”. Not a great photo but given the distance a picture I was happy to get was of an Olivaceous Piculet, another Lifer.
We were back to Sachatamia by the late afternoon. Our ritual was to meet with Jorge to go over the list for the day and then have dinner always at the lodges where we stayed. Food was great with main course being chicken or trout or pork or beef, always with fresh vegetables and usually rice and or potatoes and a dessert. Portions varied from large to even larger and we were always pleased. After dinner we would retire to our room and I would download photos from the camera to my laptop using an external hard drive since there were usually many hundreds of photos each day. I would try to delete obviously terrible ones, but fell behind on that quickly. As I mentioned before it would have been great if our guide had used Ebird for each stop and then shared the lists. Cindy would keep track of the number of species we had seen each day as we went over the checklist before dinner, but knowing which birds were Lifers was tedious at best. At the end of day three our cumulative list for Ecuador was 153 species of which 64 were new species for my World Life list. I was already developing an awareness that the percentage of Lifers was lower than expected and that we would need some really great days to reach the hoped for 256 lifers to get to 3000, but at the same time, the whole experience was so rewarding that the numbers were becoming less important.
There was another important development by this time – Cindy was really getting into photography. From earlier birding trips, I had learned to take a backup camera in case something went wrong. A camera had died on day two of a trip to Arizona and a lens had failed on a trip to see Yellow Rails in Louisiana. This time I brought a Canon SX70 zoom both as a backup and as a way to maybe interest Cindy in taking pictures as I had found that heightened my enjoyment of birding. It was a steep learning curve as she had only taken scenery and people pictures (some excellent ones) with her I-phone previously. Hardly fair to start out a photography course trying to take pictures of tiny hummingbirds zooming around, but tanagers and other birds at feeders were better opportunities. I often turned around to see Cindy looking at pictures on the back of the camera – she was into it.
Showers, then early to bed as it would be a particularly early wake up call the next morning as we would be visiting a Cock of the Rock lek which would be active as the sun came up.
On June 15th, we arrived at Puembo Birding Garden about 12 miles from the Quito Airport around 4:00 pm Quito time which is two hours later than Edmonds time. After the redeye flight to Miami and then the flight to Quito, our bodies were quite confused but we were quickly energized by our new surroundings, meeting our hostess Mercedes Ribadeneira and seeing birds coming to feeders behind a one-way wall. It also helped that Mercedes is a dog lover (and in fact seems to collect stray dogs, having over 30) which instantly established a rapport with Cindy who was already missing our black Lab, Chica. We would be the only guests that night and would be leaving early the next morning.
The bird list started quickly at Puembo. Most numerous were Eared Doves and Saffron Finches followed by numerous Sparkling Violetear Hummingbirds, a single Black Trainbearer Hummer, a Rufous Tailed Hummingbird and a couple of Western Emeralds. There were also three tanager species: Scrub Tanager, Blue and Yellow Tanager and Blue Gray Tanager and many Golden Rumped Euphonias. In the courtyard, I had a great look at the only Croaking Ground Dove I would see during the trip and outside added Great Thrush, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Golden Grosbeak, Rufous Collared Sparrow and Yellow Bellied Seedeater among others. Altogether there were 23 species of which only three were new life birds, but it felt like a great start.
Dinner was great and Cindy had a chance to visit with all of Mercedes’ dogs and we also met her daughter. We were in bed early as the first of many (all?) of our 5:30 am breakfasts would await us the next morning. Promptly at 6:00 we said goodbye and loaded into the car that would be our conveyance for the non-Amazon part of our trip and headed west with Jorge and Jorge. We would be spending the next three nights at Sachatamia Lodge in the Mindo region in the Western Andes and on our way today we would first stop at the Yanacocha Reserve only about 30 miles from Puembo but due to traffic and road conditions, it would be an hour and forty minutes from Puembo.
We drove through part of Quito but never really got into the central city itself. Looking back now, we wish we had added a day to visit the central city as it has interesting architecture, culture and food. Similarly we wish we had been able to visit the Galapagos which everyone raves about. Time and cost were the reasons we did not. Maybe in the future we will return to Ecuador, see Quito, visit the Galapagos and bird in another part of the Country. This morning Quito was only something that slowed our going. It was great to finally get to Yanacocha both to end the bumpy ride and to begin our birding. The reserve was created by the Jocotoco Foundation to preserve habitat for the threatened Black Breasted Puffleg, a hummingbird that we unfortunately did not see. It is in the high altitude cloud forest and is about 2700 acres at an altitude of 10,000 to 13,000 feet.
Although we did not see the rare Black Breasted Puffleg, we did see 9 other hummingbird species, mostly coming to feeders at the Reserve. We also saw a number of other exciting birds, 27 in all in the morning of which 10 where Lifers for me. In these blog posts I am not going to add photos of every bird we saw at each stop, as tempting as that is. The choices are hard, but my goal is to include photos that are special to me – either because of the species or maybe just the photo itself sometime adding special stories that go with them. There will still be many, many photos as the birds and places were truly spectacular. A first visit to a place that has active hummingbird feeders is pretty overwhelming. There are often a dozen or two hummers flitting around at several feeders. They land and feed for an instant or several seconds and then are off again. There may be many different species and usually males and females are different and immatures may be different as well. It is hard enough to get good looks for identification let alone getting pictures of the hummers you want in the quickly changing drama. And oh yeah there may be fruit feeders (usually bananas in Ecuador) with other species putting on their own spectacle. Such was definitely the case at Yanacocha. The following is just a small sampling of the action at the hummingbird feeders.
Oh wait there is another photo I have to include – one of the most sought after and incredible of the Hummingbirds – the Sword Billed Hummingbird which has the largest bill of any hummingbird in the world and indeed has the longest bill in relation to its body length of any bird in the world!!
The hummers tried to steal the show, but two Mountain Tanagers were equally magnificent with their vibrant colors and from the reaction of our guide when they appeared, we were fortunate to see them.
It may not be fair to leave out so many other birds, but I cannot move on without including two other beauties – the Barred Fruiteater and the Masked Flowerpiercer, one of three flowerpiercer species we saw and by far the most numerous – probably at least a dozen.
Oh wait again (sorry that’s the last time I will do that). Another of the birds that is protected at the Yanacocha Reserve is the Andean Guan. We first got a distant view and then a pair came in to the feeders for great up close photo opportunities.
We left the feeders and our guide, Jorge Luna, took us to two special spots on one of the roads through the reserve – our targets were Antpittas. At the feeders Jorge had already established himself as an excellent guide as he called out the identification of each species as it landed on a feeder, perched nearby or zoomed in front of us. Now he proved his excellence with his special knowledge of where to find very challenging species. Antpittas are highly sought out specialty species of subtropical and tropical South and Central America. They are generally forest birds that feed on insects on or near the ground. Often secretive in dense foliage, they are hard to find and see – unless you are with Jorge. We went down two trails into the brush and in each case we heard what would become a familiar and very welcomed phrase: “I’ve got it – come here.” Jorge would often use his green laser to point out the bird’s location always being careful to keep it below or to the side so as not to disturb it. Locating a bird in dense brush or foliage is not my strong point, so I was very appreciative and these two Antpittas were my first proof that this would be a very successful procedure. Even after such great hummingbirds and mountain tanagers, these were the best birds of the visit…and it was still early.
We left Yanacocha and continued west into the Andes following the so-called Ecoruta birding around 7000 feet elevation. Birding was excellent as we saw 45 species including 13 Lifers in just about 2 hours. Since there were no feeders, photos were much harder to come by and while there were three hummingbird species (none new) it was the diversity of the birds that was most appreciated. I was very pleased to get a photo of a Turquoise Jay (there would be many more later) and thrilled to glimpse a Beautiful Jay in the distance but unhappy not to get its photo. A fun little flycatcher was a Tufted Tit-tyrant with its tuft barely visible. A Red Crested Cotinga was our second Cotinga for the day and a pair of Red Headed Barbets were among my favorite pictures of the trip.
There would be one more stop before arriving at our lodge – the Alambi Reserve. With great feeders for hummingbirds and others, the photo ops were great and we saw 28 species including 12 hummingbirds and 12 tanagers (including closely related Euphonias). Altogether another 11 Lifers.
Two other very nice birds were a Crimson Rumped Toucanet and a Black Winged Saltator. It is easy to see how a “toucanet” gets its name, essentially a small toucan, but I was stumped by “saltator”. The only guidance I found was that it is Latin for “leaper” or “dancer” and supposed was given to this genus of birds because they hop around heavily on the ground – a behavior we did not see.
We continued on to Sachatamia Lodge in the Cloud/Rain Forest which was wonderful with a nice room, good food and good birds, but that is a story for the next blog post. Our first full day in Ecuador had been outstanding with 91 species including 35 Lifers for me. We had 21 hummingbirds and 15 tanagers and the two Antpittas. The running total was 108 species for Ecuador and 38 Lifers. We were ready for more.
It is now just over three weeks since Cindy and I returned from a marvelous trip to Ecuador. I have spent hours each day going over the 8000 plus photos I took, editing, organizing, discarding and enjoying them. I am finally sitting down to start what I expect will be at least several blog posts trying to recapture some of the highlights of the trip and I am struggling trying to determine the best way to share our adventure. Should the posts be a recital of what we did and saw in calendar order, or organized by the diverse ecoregions we visited, by the species we saw or featuring some of the special adventures we so fortunately were able to enjoy together? Since our trip was organized to visit three different areas of Ecuador: Mindo and the Western Andes, the Amazon and the Eastern Andes in somewhat equal time blocks of 4 or 5 days each, I am going to mostly follow the itinerary/timeline of the trip perhaps with some sidebars and detours along the way.
First some background and an overview. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Towards the northwest corner of South America, bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the West, Colombia to the north, and Peru to the South and East, its area is just under 110,000 square miles. Well that is if you exclude the ocean between the Galapagos Islands (part of Ecuador) which are about 600 miles from the mainland. If it were a U.S. state it would be the 8th largest – just between Colorado and Nevada but it is the 4th smallest of the 12 countries in South America. The highest point in Ecuador is the summit of Mount Chimborazo at 20,549 feet and the lowest of course is the coast next to the Pacific Ocean. In between most of the country is dominated by the Eastern and Western Andes where we spent 2/3 of our trip at elevations of 5,000 to 14,000 feet and even the Amazon region that we visited was almost 1000 feet above sea level. The capital city of Quito is at 9,350 feet. It is this change of elevations plus the amazing richness of the Amazon region that creates the many habitats of the country. It is the resulting biodiversity that drew us to Ecuador because of the many bird species found there.
Although the science of speciation is changing with DNA studies, it has generally been believed that there are about 11,000 species of birds in the world. In all of the continental United States plus Alaska and Canada (to birders “the ABA area”), which together are about 7.6 million square miles, around 1100 bird species have been seen – including many that have been seen only a few times. By contrast in tiny Ecuador, more than 1650 species have been recorded, the fifth most in any country behind Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Indonesia. All except Indonesia include parts of Amazonia and the Andes range. Of these, Ecuador is by far the smallest, less than 25% as large as any of the others. Here is a stunning comparison: If the same proportionate number of species by area was found in Ecuador as on the ABA Area, there would only be 16 species in the entire country!!! Turned around, if the number of species per square mile in Ecuador were found in the ABA Area, there would be 114,000 species. Wouldn’t birders love that?
It is the opportunity to see a large number of species in a relatively small area that puts Ecuador near the top of every world birder’s list of places to go. I had visited both Peru and Brazil before with the trip to the former being almost exclusively for birds and to the latter with much less focus on birds. There is significant overlap in the species found in all of those countries. It takes even expert birders many trips to any of the countries to find even a majority of the birds. Before the trip, my world Life List was at 2744. I was hoping to see over 500 species in Ecuador including at least the 256 needed to get to 3000. Friends who had visited Ecuador last year in November on essentially the same itinerary as we would follow had seen more than 550 species. That is a somewhat better time to go but my goals seemed possible if not probable. It did not quite work out that way as will be detailed later.
Unlike our trip to Oaxaca Mexico last year which combined birding with cultural and artistic activities, this was going to be hard core birding only and at first I was concerned that it might not appeal to Cindy. However, as we visited websites for the lovely lodges where we would stay and saw photos of some of the birds we would see and learned of the different areas we would visit, Cindy was eager to go. It would be her first trip to South America, to the Andes and especially to any rainforest, let alone the Amazon. Then there was the question of her physical condition. She had been in great shape from dedicated workouts with a trainer over the past year plus, but that had stopped when she had knee replacement surgery just 10 weeks before our departure. She had recovered quickly from the same procedure on her other knee two years earlier. We had to schedule the trip before the second surgery and agreed we would change the timing if there were complications or she might sit out certain activities – like climbing the giant canopy towers in the Amazon if need be. Later you will see how she did. Frankly, I was more concerned about the need to head out early every morning for our birding. I am a morning person and she is not, so having breakfast at 5:00 or 5:30 would be a heavy ask. No suspense here. We did start early every morning and she made it without anything negative every morning.
Our visit was arranged through an Ecuadorian touring company, the same company that my friends had used in November 2021. We would have been happy to join a small existing tour, but as it worked out we had a private tour with our own vehicle, driver and guide. Another friendly interesting couple may have been great, but this worked out really well, even though it was a bit more expensive. We flew out of Seattle on June 14th on a red-eye flight to Miami. After a not too bad layover we then flew to a very nice relatively new airport in Quito arriving in the early afternoon. There is always a moment of apprehension when arriving in a foreign country where the tour company is supposed to meet you. Every detail of our interactions with Xavier Munoz, the owner of Neblina Forest, had been fantastic and reassuring – but that was from the familiar safety of our own Edmonds home. This was different but all apprehension was immediately put to rest as Jorge Luna, our guide and companion for most of the next two weeks, was there as we exited the baggage claim area with our names on a sign. We were in Ecuador. We were in good hands and we were ready for adventure.
The next blog post will begin our journey at Puembo Birding Garden, near the Quito Airport and just outside of Quito. Not to shortcut the story, here is a summary of our birding during the trip. We saw a total of 450 species in Ecuador, photographed 300 species and I added 207 species to my World Life List – admittedly short of what was hoped for to get to 3000, but the quality of birds seen and photographed and of the trip itself completely overshadowed any disappointment. Every day was incredible, fun and rewarding. Those 450 species included more than 50 species each of hummingbirds, tanagers (broadly defined) and flycatchers. Additionally among our favorites were 6 species of Antpittas and 6 species of Barbets plus many trogons, toucans and toucanets, parrots, parakeets, motmots, woodpeckers, raptors (including an incredible 15 Andean Condors), both forms of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and the bizarre Hoatzins in Amazonas.
Unfortunately I have to add a word about the civil unrest and demonstrations that occurred during the second half of the trip. Spurred by an increase in gas prices (which are regulated and set by the government in Ecuador) but greatly complicated by politics, there were many days of demonstrations that closed roads and parks, shut down commerce and caused many tour operators to cancel or modify trips. We came close to ending our trip early as access to some areas we were to visit and even to the airport were threatened. We had excellent up to date information from Neblina Forest and decided to stick it out. Two parts of the trip were modified. Instead of being picked up at Coca in the Amazon region by our guide and then heading back to Quito through the Eastern Andes, we flew back to Quito and covered most of the same area in reverse order. Also at the very end, as access to the airport was a big concern, instead of spending the last night in Puembo, we went to the Airport early and spent the night there before our flight back to Miami the next morning. Not fun, but we made it out on schedule and it is now just part of the story which will be told in blog posts to follow.
In an earlier blog post, I wrote up two “Birding Slams” that I was fortunate to have in January 2022. On January 27th, it was the “Zono Slam” – all four of the Zonotrichia sparrow species on the same day and in fact at the same location in Snohomish County, Washington – WHITE THROATED SPARROW, WHITE CROWNED SPARROW, GOLDEN CROWNED SPARROW and HARRIS’S SPARROW. Four days later on January 31st it was the “Falcon Slam” as Jon Houghton and I had AMERICAN KESTREL, MERLIN, PEREGRINE FALCON, PRAIRIE FALCON and GYRFALCON in Skagit, Washington. On May 21st, on a mixed birding, wine and food trip to Walla Walla centered around attending Mike Denny’s presentation of “Secret Life of the Desert: Deserts of the Pacific Northwest”, it happened again – another Birding Slam – all of the hummingbird species regularly seen in Washington – ANNA’S, RUFOUS, CALLIOPE and BLACK CHINNED with the bonus of the COSTA’S HUMMINGBIRD that first visited a feeder in Ellensburg, Washington last year and has made a return this
EBird has records of a BROAD TAILED HUMMINGBIRD seen by many observers in the Walla Walla area in 2005 (no photos) and there is a report with photo of a female RUBY THROATED HUMMINGBIRD in Ridgefield, Washington, in 2017. The Washington Bird Records Committee also has a BROAD BILLED HUMMINGBIRD on the state list but there is nothing on EBird. The hummers in the first paragraph are regular and not too difficult to find in the right areas and at the right times – except for the COSTA’S which has been very rare with very few records. As far as I know there have been no other occasions in Washington where five hummingbird species have been seen by single observers on the same day. Since the COSTA’S has been regular for multiple weeks both last year and this year, I expect this is simply because nobody thought to try to do it – although finding the BLACK CHINNED and CALLIOPE’S are by no means guaranteed. So a nice first “Five Hummer Slam” even better because Cindy got to see it with me. [I noted that on one checklist for the BROAD TAILED HUMMINGBIRD by Mike and MerryLynn Denny, they also reported CALLIOPE, RUFOUS and BLACK CHINNED.]
In May it is almost a requirement to stop at Bullfrog Pond just west of Cle Elum whenever I travel to Eastern Washington. We had seen both ANNA’S and RUGOUS HUMMINGBIRDS at Snoqualmie Pass but the Hummer Slam was not yet on the agenda. The stop at Bullfrog would hopefully give us looks at some newly arrived migrants and I was particularly hoping for new birds for Cindy with WESTERN TANAGER at the top of the list. Bullfrog was not super birdy but we did manage to find CASSIN’S and WARBLING VIREOS, NASHVILLE, YELLOW and WILSON’S WARBLERS and most importantly BLACK HEADED GROSBEAK and WESTERN TANAGER. Afterwards we found the CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD at Aja Woodrow’s feeders on Denny Avenue.
It was only after seeing the CALLIOPE that the idea of a slam took hold. I checked with Walter and he confirmed the COSTA’S was still there and then also checked with Vic Hubbard and he confirmed that his BLACK CHINNED had been seen that morning. The hummers were hopefully to be a highlight but only one of several on the first day of our three trip. After the COSTA’S HUMMER at Walter Szeliga’s home and before our stop at Vic Hubbard’s home in Pasco, we made stops at County Line Ponds in Grant County and at Para/McCain Ponds in Adams County. As had been the case earlier on my trip with Tom St. John, the goal was to find BLACK NECKED STILTS and AMERICAN AVOCETS. Cindy had seen the STILTS in Mexico but not in Washington and the AVOCETS would be new. I was also hoping for WILSON’S PHALAROPES, which I had seen at the “Dwayne Lane Pond” in Snohomish County a few days earlier but which again would be new for Cindy. The County Line Ponds delivered with great looks at all of the targets. A first experience with the twirling phalaropes is memorable. Beautiful birds and the circling feeding technique is simply mesmerizing to watch. Also memorable was the photo that Cindy got of one of the STILTS – her first foray into bird photography – and a beauty!!
At Para Ponds we did find a few TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS but were not able to get decent photos. Interestingly there were numerous BLACK NECKED STILTS but neither AVOCETS nor PHALAROPES which I had expected. So we were on to Vic Hubbard’s place in Pasco where at the very last minute before leaving, we did finally see the BLACK CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD to make the slam. A big bonus was Vic taking us to his BURROWING OWL site on private property – part of a study program with Jason Fidorra. This was new for Cindy and greatly appreciated.
And then there would be another bonus as Vic told us about a HUDSONIAN GODWIT that MerryLynn Denny had found at the 2 Rivers Unit of the McNary NWR that morning and that Vic had seen afterwards. Our plan had been to look for FERRUGINOUS HAWKS on 9 Mile Canyon Road, but this was a very rare bird for the state and we changed plans. We had a little trouble fining the “trail” out to the water from the parking area, but finally got on the right path. When we got to the river we could see a large shorebird a couple hundred yards away. A scope view confirmed that it was the HUDSONIAN GODWIT – only the 6th one I have seen in Washington and the first in Eastern Washington. We tried to hike out to get closer for a photo but it took off and the only photos I could get were of an undiscernible brown mass flying away. I am including a wonderful photo that Vic took earlier.
With that success, we called it a day and carried on to Walla Walla where we would stay for two nights. Thanks to the “World’s Noisiest Ice Machine” our stay at the Comfort Inn ranked pretty low for our stays anywhere, but the rest of our visit was great. There had been a lot of birding and there would be more, but the main reason for coming to Walla Walla was to attend the “Secret Life of the Desert: Deserts of the Pacific Northwest” presentation by Mike Denny the next day, but hey, while we were there we were going to take advantage of the great wine and food offerings in the area, starting with dinner at TMac’s that first night. Really good food with the highlight being a Brussels Salad that was one of the best starters we have ever had. Fun place with great service as well.
The next morning Cindy slept in and I left very early to look for the SNOWY EGRET and WHITE FACED IBISES that had been reported at Millet Pond. I got to Millet Pond around 7:00 a.m. and was able to get a scope view of the SNOWY EGRET only the third one I have seen in Washington (although with multiple observations of one over several years). I continued on to the furthest parking area and hiked in looking for the WHITE FACED IBIS. This has been a hit and miss species in Washington. In the last few years, they have been seen somewhat regularly at this location but can easily be missed in the vegetation and this year only three had been seen. It was a great walk with lots of species including my first LARK SPARROW, EASTERN KINGBIRD and RED NECKED PHALAROPES for 2022 but no IBIS. Some other fun species though were multiple winnowing WILSON’S SNIPE, several whinnying SORA, a BULLOCK’S ORIOLE, WESTERN WOOD PEWEES calling constantly and LAZULI BUNTING.
I had intended to stop again at 2 Rivers, but forgot that it was just West and not just East of Millet Pond, and after heading 8 miles in the wrong direction decided to continue on back to Walla Walla where we had a wine tasting scheduled at noon before going to Mike’s presentation at 3:00 o’clock. We had heard good things about the Walla Walla Bread Company and stopped there before the wine for a late “brunch”. We did not have a great experience. First since they were “out of bagels” I could not get the Bagels, Lox and Cream Cheese that I wanted and is one of their specialties. Then we had to wait 30 minutes from the time we placed our order until it was ready to be picked up (not even served). And they were not really all that crowded. The servings were large but there was no taste to the scramble and the panino that we got. Oh well.
The experience was much better with our wine tasting which was at Kontos Winery’s tasting room in downtown Walla Walla. The winery had been recommended by our wine guru extraordinaire, Adonis Mclean who has never led us wrong. Walla Walla is an amazing wine place with more than 120 wineries and excellent wine. We were quite surprised that Kontos was not crowded. Two other couples were there when we arrived but departed soon after and we had the place and Andy, our wine steward and server, to ourselves for almost two hours. Our six tastings included a white that we were not crazy about and then 5 reds that we were very fond of especially their Cabernet Sauvignon, their Syrah, their Alatus Red Blend and their featured Boss Red which comes only in magnums and is a blend of 47% merlot, 47% cabernet sauvignon and 6 % cabernet franc. We are hardly experts but are trying to learn and definitely do enjoy. We purchased a couple of bottles to bring home. Andy was great company.
Mike’s presentation debuted to a full house and was fantastic. What we saw was a compendium of the 19 episodes of “Secret Life of the Desert: Deserts of the Pacific Northwest” – a work of love and art by good friend and great naturalist/historian/birder Mike Denney and photographer/producer Daniel Biggs. There is no way to do justice to their creation which was several years in the making. A brief video introduction can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqiukdUQSdw. Really a great show.
After the presentation we were off to our second culinary visit of the trip to Hattaway’s Restaurant – self described as “Inspired by the local ingredients of the Pacific Northwest, Hattaway’s on Alder brings the cooking traditions of the Southeast and rural America to downtown Walla Walla, Washington. Honest food with the charm of Southern hospitality.” The food was really good, the service really really good and the hospitality, really really really good. We liked the Etouffee better than their trademark fried chicken but enjoyed both with more Walla Walla wine of course.
We got a relatively early start for home on Monday morning with a first stop on Highway 12 where we were able to get nice photos of a SWAINSON’S HAWK eating its morning meal before we continued on to 9 Mile Canyon Road searching for the FERRUGINOUS HAWKS that nest there. One nest is not far up the road but is up a narrow draw and quite distant. We could see one adult sitting on the platform nest – good scope views but a distant photo at best. I had hoped to show Cindy some LARK SPARROWS along the way as it is a good place for them, but they did not cooperate. Other observations were a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE and a couple of calling ROCK WRENS.
Continuing East and still hoping for a LARK SPARROW, we turned off Highway 12 onto Hatch Grade Road. No sparrow but we had great views of one of Cindy’s favorite birds, LAZULI BUNTING. They seem to prefer brushy slopes and that is exactly what we had. We also had several WESTERN KINGSBIRDS, an EASTERN KINGBIRD and a SAY”S PHOEBE.
I especially wanted Cindy to see Millet Ponds, even if only from the high road without walking in. Of course I was hoping that maybe the WHITE FACED IBIS would make an appearance as well. As soon as we stopped on the road above the ponds, we saw some large dark forms that were promising. Bins, cameras and the scope confirmed that we had found some WHITE FACED IBIS. At first there was a group of 3, then another group of 4 and then a flock flew in and altogether we had at least 30. Distant photos only but a great find for us. We did not move in closer and did not stay long but we had CINNAMON and GREEN WINGED TEAL, GREAT EGRETS, YELLOW HEADED BLACKBIRDS and a calling SORA.
Again continuing west, we drove up Dodd Road to the sand cliffs where BARN OWLS have nested for many years. We were only able to see owls in the larger of the holes in the bank and I later learned that there were probably owlets in another of the holes, but we were happy with the looks we got, even if the owls were pretty far back in the cavities. They really are odd looking creatures with their heart shaped faces.
The HUDSONIAN GODWIT had been seen at the 2 Rivers Unit of McNary NWR the previous morning. Would we get lucky and have it again this morning? Unfortunately not. Cindy rested her recovering knee and I retraced Saturday’s hike out to the river. On the way out I ran into another birder, Pam Cahn, who said that the GODWIT had not been seen that day but that a BLACK TERN had been seen earlier although it had flown off to the East. One of the main reasons for returning to the spot was to look more closely at the other birds there including both COMMON and FORSTER’S TERNS which had been seen there regularly over the past few days as well as a chance for a FRANKLIN’S GULL. All would be FOY’s for me as would the BLACK TERN which would be a great bonus. The good news is that they were all there – albeit a long way off – best seen with a scope. I was particularly happy to find the BLACK TERN sitting on the sand bar with the others, visible only when it was on the side of the bar closest to me. The photo is terrible but confirms the ID. Usually I have to travel to Spokane County to find BLACK TERNS, a trip I was not planning on making this year, so a bonus indeed.
There would be one more stop on the way back, a small diversion to Horn Rapids State Park where I have had COMMON NIGHTHAWKS in the past and where several had been reported the previous week. We walked through the campground and through the trees. Maybe they were there and we missed them, but it was not to be. A bonus was a decent view and photo of a male BULLOCK’S ORIOLE which were heard singing and chattering.
We left Horn Rapids around 2 pm. Normally it would be around 3.5 hours to reach home about 210 miles away. We never did figure out why, but there was a terrible traffic jam and delay on I-90 adding an unpleasant hour to our journey, but it had been a great trip for birds, scenery, food, wine and friends. We had not specifically tried to add species, but still ended up with 101 species for the trip – of which 13 were new for 2022 for me. Without question the Hummer Slam had been the most fun and memorable birding part of the trip, and the BLACK TERN and HUDSONIAN GODWIT at 2 Rivers were unexpected treats. I think the best part of the trip, though, was Cindy starting to get into the photography. I have found it to greatly enhance my pleasure and definitely improve my ability to identify birds. I am sure it will be the same for her.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!!??
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
[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.]
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://blairbirding.com/2021/03/08/the-big-month-ends-ok-but-only-ok/ 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 https://blairbirding.com/2022/02/04/slamming/) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
So there it is a Skua Slam. Maybe readers will think of another one.