South Dakota with David Swanson and Paul Roisen

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

Birder’s Guide to South Dakota

Birder's Guide to South Dakota

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

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

Lark Bunting – My First SD Bird – Not My Photo

Lark Bunting

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

Wood Duck

Wood Duck Male1

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

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

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch

White Breasted Nuthatch2

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


James River Flood

Snow Geese – One Blue Form

Snow Geese

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

Leucistic House Sparrow

House Sparrows

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

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

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


Killdeer with Worm1

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

Wild Turkeys

Wild Turkeys

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

Western Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark

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

Spirit Mound

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

Dave Swanson at Spirit Mound State Park

Dave Swanson


When Does Forty-Nine Become Forty-Four?

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

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

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

Franklin’s Gull

Franklin's Gull Flight

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper2



Semipalmated Plover

Semipalmated Plover

Pied Billed Grebe (Juvenile)

Pied Billed Grebe Juvenile

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

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

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

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow

Clay Colored Sparrow3

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

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

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

Krider’s Red Tailed Hawk

Krider's Red Tailed Hawk1

Krider's Takeoff

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

Broad Winged Hawk

Broad Winged Hawk Juvenile1

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

Eastern Blue Jay

Blue Jay1

Eastern Bluebird


Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

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

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

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

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

Red Headed Woodpecker

Red Headed Woodpecker Adult

Red Headed Woodpecker Immature

Red Headed Woodpecker Juvenile1

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

On to South Dakota…



Each State is Different…Right Minnesota?

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

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

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

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

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

Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

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

Black Backed Chickadee

Black Capped Chickadee.jpg

Black and White Warbler

Black and White Warbler1

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

Sandhill Cranes


Blue Winged Teal

Blue Winged Teal

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

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler2



Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe2

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

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



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

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird1

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

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

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

Franklin’s Gull and Ringed Billed Gull

Ring Billed and Franklin's Gulls



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

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

Greater Prairie Chicken


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

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




Pre-Pelagic Prospecting

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

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

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

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

Red Knot

Red Knot1

Baird’s Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

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

Western Sandpiper with Worm

Western Sandpiper with Worm1

Bonaparte’s Gull

Bonaparte's Gull

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



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



Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler1

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

American Pipit

American Pipit1

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird

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

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

Smith's Longspur

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



Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

Short Billed Dowitcher

Short Billed Dowitcher1

Heerman’s Gull

Heerman's Gull1

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

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

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

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Parasitic Jaeger

Parasitic Jaeger Flight

Parasitic Jaeger1

Parasitic Jaeger

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

Long Billed Curlew

Long Billed Curlew

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

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




The Calm Before the Storm

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

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

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

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

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican Flight1

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

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

Pink Footed Shearwater

Pink Footed Shearwater

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel

Fork Tailed Storm Petrel2

Pomarine Jaeger

Pomarine Jaeger

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

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua Flight1

Parasitic Jaeger Harassing California Gull

Parasitic Jaeger Attack

Long Tailed Jaeger

Long Tailed Jaeger.jpg

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

Black Footed Albatross

Black Footed Albatross Head

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

Blue Shark

Blue Shark3

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

Sabine’s Gull (Adult)

Sabine's Gull Adult1

Sabine’s Gull (Juvenile)

Sabine's Gull Juvenile2

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

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

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

Buller’s Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater on Water

Short Tailed Shearwater

Short Tailed Shearwater Wings

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

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

Flesh Footed Shearwater

Flesh Footed Shearwater Gaping

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

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin1a

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

Marbled Godwits

Marbled Godwits1

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

Fur Seal – Northern or Guadalupe

Possible Guadulupe Fur Seal

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



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

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

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


Long Billed Dowitcher1


Greater and Lesser Yelowlegs


Solitary Sandpiper1


Least Sandpiper2


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


Stilt Sandpiper Kent3


Western Sandpiper1

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

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

Hudsonian Godwit Crockett3

Troubles on the Road – Bad “Car-ma” and Good Karma

My birding puts on a LOT of miles every year.  I love to drive and it is not unusual to cover several hundred miles on a birding day trip – once more than 700 miles at the end of a Big Year.  Over the past 8 years since returning to active birding, I have put more than 270,000 miles on the two cars I have owned during that period with a substantial majority of that related to birding.  With the exception of a few trips to B.C. or Oregon and my Mountain States travels as part of the 50/50/50 Adventure, these miles are all in Washington.  There have been many more miles in rental cars or in the cars of friends on shared trips.

Given all those miles, many in remote parts of the state and many on dirt or gravel roads, some mishaps are to be expected.  The one I had yesterday (August 5) prompted this post.  It ended well and now becomes just another story, but it recalls other troubles on the road – and given the sad events of this week with two horrendous mass shootings, it also recalls how in each of those cases as in my mishaps, wonderful people were there to help.  And given the number of miles involved, I have to consider myself very fortunate that all turned out well.

I have been driving for more than 45 years now and have never had an accident.  Well yes I did close the garage door on my parked car with the tailgate still up, but that is more of a “stupid” than an “accident” so it doesn’t count.  So my incidents have all been mechanical or about tires, or getting stuck in the snow.  And there have “only” been seven, so as the title of the blog says – Good Karma indeed.

Yesterday’s incident occurred in the waiting area for the Mukilteo to Clinton Ferry.  I was off to Crockett Lake on Whidbey Island to look for shorebirds hopefully including a Baird’s Sandpiper which had been reported there a few times over the weekend.  At the terminal ticket booth I asked for a “Round Trip – Seniors” ticket.  Maybe it was the sunglasses, but the lady in the booth said “no way” and I had to show my I.D. to prove the age – which is well past the 65 years threshold.  It was a compliment I guess and since the traffic was light it also prompted a pleasant conversation.  Then I was into line C – the fourth car there.  When it came time to start up and begin boarding, the dashboard lit up but there was no response from the starter and the car locked into “Park” .  I tried several times to start it and nothing happened.  I called over one of the ferry workers and together we were able to get the cars behind me around me.  I tried again and nothing except a message that said “Parking Brake Temporarily Inaccessible”.  And the ferry took off…  Ferry personnel blocked off my lane for the next round of cars, offered some ideas and then said they would let the tow truck in.

My insurer provides roadside assistance so I called and went through a cumbersome process ordering the tow which was to arrive within an hour.  About 20 minutes later after having turned off everything, locked the car and walked away to feel sorry for myself, I returned and tried again.  Radio and electrical worked but I was still in immovable “park”.  I called the tow company and had no answer.  After another 20 minutes during which I projected a very ugly and shorebird-less day, I tried the car again.  There was a little hesitancy but the engine started and I could get out of “park”.  The next ferry was loading.  What should I do?  Roll the dice and board or remain and get to a dealership?  I called the tow company again…no answer.  What the heck, I had nothing else planned for the day so I decided to risk it and board.  I told the person directing me to the left side of the ferry that I had had a problem earlier and it might be better if I was in the main deck area.  They waved me to a relatively convenient spot.


I debated leaving the engine on during the crossing, but elected to turn it off.  The woman who had directed me to this spot had some good ideas in case the problem returned. “Turn everything off.  Roll up the windows.  Lock the car.  Get far enough away so that the key does not communicate.  Come back in a few minutes and try again.”  She was very nice.  What was the worst that could happen – go back and forth across the sound several times?  On the crossing I saw a single Rhinoceros Auklet, a single Common Murre and a single Pigeon Guillemot.  A small flock of Black Turnstones flew in front of the ferry.  Ebird wanted a “rarity” explanation for them.

As we approached the ferry dock in Clinton, it was the moment of truth.  My friendly ferry attendant stood next to the car and crossed her fingers.  IT STARTED!!!  She waved me off and I just hoped the car would start again after a next stop.  That would have been for a bathroom break and some coffee, but I was not going to risk a stop without a chance for some birds.  My next stop was at Crockett Lake.  I drove along the bordering road and noted shorebirds everywhere mostly peeps flying about.  As I had done on previous visits, I parked about midway in one of the lots and took the scope, camera and binoculars to search for a Baird’s Sandpiper and maybe something else.  It is a big area and many of the birds, especially the larger shorebirds were quite distant, complicated by very serious heat distortion.

There were hundreds of birds.  Most of the closer ones seemed to be Western Sandpipers but there were many Least Sandpipers as well.  Further out were numerous Long Billed (presumably) Dowitchers and some Yellowlegs – both Greater and Lesser. I saw a few  Black Bellied Plovers. I did not see any Godwits, but with the heat distortion and distance I could not be sure as details at 40X magnification in the scope were hard to discern.  A group of peeps flew by me and landed maybe 100 feet away.  One was different – larger and longer winged with a scaly back – all details seen only through the scope.  This was the Baird’s Sandpiper I had hoped to see.  Fifteen minutes later about 200 yards away I saw another similar bird and do not know if it was the same individual or a second one.

Baird’s Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper1

Especially after the tough start, I was very happy.  I did not know if the car would behave when I returned to the lot or not.  I remembered a crude path that led out through the salicornia to a channel that often was good for birds and in any event would get me somewhat closer to the area where I had seen the larger shorebirds.  If the car started, I would drive to another parking spot further east and see if I could get out there.  I had forgotten my Muck boots which would have made it much easier.  The car started.  I moved east, parked and ventured forth.  This was a good decision.  When I got to the channel – maybe 1/4 of a mile through the vegetation and only a single step into the muck, I saw what immediately looked like a Godwit.  A quick view through my scope confirmed not just any old Godwit but the Hudsonian Godwit that had been seen earlier in the week but not the day before.  Eureka!!

I moved closer and was completely ignored by this “Hudwit” which foraged in shallow water and in perfect light.  I watched it as peeps flew in next to it, stayed only briefly, were completely ignored and flew off.  My prize remained within 10 feet of where I first saw it for the next twenty minutes.  I moved off trying to get closer to the larger shorebirds that had been my motivation for making the trek in the first place.  I got close enough only for “better looks” but not enough for photos.  The Black Bellied Plovers had departed so no way to know if maybe a Golden Plover had been in the group.

Hudsonian Godwit

Hudsonian Godwit Crockett2

I returned for more pictures and noticed that another birder had just begun the trek across the salicornia, so I decided to wait without any motion to possibly scare off the Godwit.  I was sitting on the salicornia so I doubt the birder had seen me.  I rose carefully and waved him to come.  After about 5 minutes or so he made it.  I asked if he wanted to see a Hudsonian Godwit.  “Of course”.  He, too, knew it had been missed the day before.  “There it is”, I said and he had a new Life Bird completely unexpected.  Sharing such experiences is one of the great joys of birding.  I left a few minutes later thankful for all that had gone right after such a bad start, figuring I had once again made a withdrawal from my good karma account.  Maybe showing this fellow the Godwit had made a deposit to replenish it somewhat.

I posted the find on both EBird and Tweeters with some specifics on how to get to the not too obvious spot.  Several people found the Hudsonian Godwit there the next day and sent their thanks.  More good karma.

Previous Car Episodes

Each of my previous car episodes had at least two things in common:  everything worked out ok and just like the ferry staff, good and helpful folks were involved.  Without too much detail, here are the other car stories – all with my former car – a BMW X5 that I loved dearly but traded in for a Jeep after the last episode described below.

Okanogan Mishaps

          Two Flat Tires – Cameron Lake Road

I have had more trouble in Okanogan County than anywhere else.  The worst experience was while birding alone on Cameron Lake Road – a gravel road that runs about 20 miles in the hills south and east of Okanogan.  It can be a wonderful place for many birds and my list for the area includes White Headed Woodpecker, Gray Partridge, American Tree Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Bohemian Waxwing and especially Snow Buntings.  On one trip as I was heading north back towards town but was still 15+ miles away, I had a flat tire.  I tried some fix-all material, but it did not work so I put on the spare (a temporary fix until I could get to town).  A couple of miles later I got a second flat tire.  Now there was nothing I could do.  No additional space and no fix-all and no cell service and I had not seen another vehicle for over an hour.  I drove the remainder of the way back to civilization on my rims trying hard to not think of the cost for the damage ahead.  It was a two hour “drive” to go 12 miles.

With the help of some extraordinary folks at Discount Tire, I had a new set of 4 tires, a repaired rim that somehow had only minor damage and was back on the road by six that evening…oh yeah, they normally closed at 5:00 o’clock.  As I said there are wonderful folks everywhere.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

          Havillah Road – Stuck in the Snow

The Havillah Sno-Park area in Okanogan County can be good for such much sought after specialties as Great Gray and Northern Pygmy Owls, American Three Toed and Black Backed Woodpeckers, Clark’s Nutcracker and Williamson’s Sapsucker and others.   I visit it every winter and find varying amounts of snow on the road up to the Sno Park itself.  Sometimes it is hard to know where the road is under the snow and this can be especially tricky if there are two cars approaching each other in opposite directions.  In February 2013, I pulled over to let another car pass and decided to park and scan the fields.  I wasn’t in too deep but just enough that I could not pull out even with 4 Wheel Drive.  Fortunately Carol Riddell, another Edmonds birder, came by and with just a little extra push, I was clear.  No owls that day but I returned early the next morning and in a quickly worsening snowfall, I heard a Great Gray Owl across the field not far from where I had been stuck the previous day.  I pulled out my scope and was able to see it perched in a tree several hundred yards away, my first view of one since 1974!!  It was approaching blizzard conditions and I definitely did not want to get stuck again, so I departed.

Not far away I found other great Okanogan birds including Bohemian Waxwings, Gray Crowned Rosy Finches and Common Redpolls.  Sure glad Carol came by and helped.  Another car mishap survived.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing-2

          More Snow Trouble – and Sharp Tailed Grouse

My best place for Sharp Tailed Grouse is the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area on the way to Conconully from Omak.  Especially when there is a lot of snow, the Grouse get up into the Water Birch to feed on the seeds.  In January 2015, Samantha Robinson and I tried for them there with lots of snow on the ground.  We thought we saw some “blobs” in the trees down by the Creek and pulled over onto the side of the road.  Unfortunately what looked like solid ground was only partially such as there was a culvert and an impossible to see ditch.  We were partly on the culvert and partly in the ditch.  Rather than try to get out, we raced off to get closer to the Sharp Tails before they departed figuring we would just have to deal with the car later.

It worked out very well for seeing the Grouse as we were able to get pretty close and get some nice photos – my best in Washington.  Now about that car.  We tried to get rid of as much snow as we could, but it was not enough.  Seeing our plight, another car pulled over.  They had a shovel – “Always carry one up here.” – and we easily dug ourselves ought and carried on.  Really wonderful and clearly helpful folks.  A couple of years later in the Spring, I was in the same area and saw a woman parked in almost the same spot with car trouble – and a young child.   Couldn’t help her with the car but drove her and her child to their home in Conconully.  She contacted her husband and he was able to attend to the car.  So another story with a happy ending and maybe equal withdrawals and deposits to the karma account.

Sharp Tailed Grouse

Sharp Tailed Grouse 3

Tire Trouble Again in Pend Oreille County – Boreal Country

Some day I may get a photo of a Boreal Owl and if I do, it may well be at Salmo Mountain in extreme Northeastern Washington.  I have visited Salmo Mountain 5 times in the Fall and have heard Boreal Owls there on every visit.  My only visual was with Brian Pendleton in 2013 when one flew over us in the dark.  The following year I visited with George Pagos and again we had a “heard only” encounter.

The road up to Salmo Mountain is remote and long and often has Moose, snow and rocks.  No Moose that night on the way back, but there was snow and apparently some rocks as we had a flat tire maybe half way down.  Fortunately I had a good spare as the nearest “civilization” was miles away.  George really took the lead in making the change and we made it down safely without not too much of a delay.  So again a happy ending – although it would have been much happier if a Boreal Owl had been curious and come in to watch our action.  If that had happened I might even have been willing to drive on a rim again.

Earlier, on the way up to look for the Owl, we did have one of the other highly sought after species there – Boreal Chickadee.

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee2

Monday No, Wednesday Yes – Car Problems in Between

This is maybe the weirdest of the car problems.  On Monday December 14, 2015 I headed south to chase a Yellow Throated Warbler Russ Koppendreyer had found the previous day in Longview.  I cannot remember the details but it had something to do with the alternator or starter or battery or something else electrical but for whatever reason, once it started, if I turned off the engine, the car was not going to start again.  I REALLY wanted to see this new State bird so I elected to drive to Longview, park the car next to the easily accessed target area, leave the car running, hopefully see the warbler, and then drive to the dealer and get the problem fixed.  Fortunately I had a full tank of gas so the 300 mile round trip without refueling was possible – I hoped.

The plan worked perfectly – except – I did not see the warbler.  Back to the BMW service department in Seattle – almost out of gas, they took the car but could not get to it until the next day.  I got a loaner and hoped that (a) it would be a relatively quick, easy and inexpensive fix, and (b) that the warbler would remain.  The problem was solved and the service folks even gave me a break on the price and did not charge me for the loaner.  It was too late to return for another try for the warbler which had been located shortly after I had departed the previous day and was seen again on the 16th.  Russ was very proud that this beautiful rarity had chosen his home Cowlitz county and provided continued guidance to visitors.  I met up with Russ on the 16th and we found the Yellow Throated Warbler  foraging at the base of the trees flitting from one to another but staying pretty much in the open.  It was a much appreciated 406th species I had seen in Washington, so another happy ending with help from BMW and the always super nice Russ.

Yellow Throated Warbler

Yellow Throated Warbler2

The Last Straw – Breakdown in Tri-Cities

I had put more than 200,000 miles on the BMW when I had the electrical problem described above.  There had been ZERO other problems.  No way to blame it for the two flat tires and getting stuck in the snow was my own fault and the excellent traction with the X5 probably kept me out of being stuck on numerous occasions when I might have been with another vehicle.  But by 2016 I was into my 10th year of ownership.  I thought maybe I could get another 5 more years out of it.  That thinking changed when on a trip to Walla Walla in February 2016, I stopped at Bateman Island to look for a Slaty Backed Gull that had been reported there.  I didn’t find that gull but did find a Lesser Black Backed Gull.  I returned to my car to continue and – nada – it was completely dead.

The good news – extraordinary news compared to what might have been, was that I was literally only 4 miles away from the Tri-Cities BMW dealership.  I have detailed this trip and the problems in two previous blog posts [ and].  The bottom line was that I got super service from the dealership with super help from their staff.  I got another loaner and completed my trip to Walla Walla and returned to get the car in two days.  The problem had been relatively minor, but there had been no warning and I thought about how awful it would have been if there had been a similar problem in many of the remote places I visit routinely.  If this had happened on Biscuit Ridge outside of Walla Walla it would have been a disaster as the closest BMW service was there in Tri-Cities which was 80 miles away.  Not long after returning to Edmonds I decided I just did not want to chance that kind of remote problem and traded the BMW in for my Jeep – which has been trouble free until that still unexplained glitch at the Mukilteo Ferry.

Lesser Black Backed Gull

Lesser Black Backed Gull3

I am sure there will be other car issues ahead.  I guess that means there will also be more stories.  I just need to survive to be able to share them.









42/42/42 out of 50/50/50 – Bird Photos from Each State

The end of July is a quiet time for birding.  Migration north is long past.  Migration south is barely beginning for some shorebirds.  Nesting season is over and fledglings are almost full grown.  Some birds are still singing, but in general the woods are quiet.  The hottest days of summer are here or soon to arrive.  Not dead, but really quiet.

Planning is underway for my next and penultimate trip on my 50/50/50 Adventure.  Birding is scheduled with some wonderful assistance from local birders in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.  I leave in 48 days and yes I am counting.  If the weather and birds cooperate, that will leave just three states to complete the adventure in all 50 states.  Sometime in October or November visits to Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma should do it.  Preliminary planning has begun for that trip as well.  As I wait for those journeys, I have reflected on the amazing times along the way – the terrific people, the great places and the wonderful birds.

So far on the “count” days in the 42 states visited, I have seen 492 species, 463 if I exclude Hawaii.  Including additional non-count days on those trips those numbers increase to 629 and 630 respectively.  I have not kept track but despite camera malfunctions in Arizona and Louisiana, I expect I have photographs of between 580 and 600 species from all of the trips.

I often am asked about “favorite” or “best” birds from my trips.  There have been so many wonderful birds that such choices are probably unfair.  Thinking about it, however, I came up with a list of favorite or best photos for each of the states.  Sometimes the choice was made because of the rarity of the bird, other times simply because I like the species or the photo.  What follows is a collection of those chosen photos.  One is included for every state from the count day itself.  If a second appears, it is from a different day on the same trip, selected using the same criteria.  Fifty seven species in all – one for each of the 42 states and another 15 – one each from 15 states – photos or birds that had special meaning to me.  The latter are always the second photos for the state.

In a few more months I hope to have additional photos for the remaining 8 states.

Alabama – Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover r

Alaska – Spectacled Eider/Short Tailed Albatross

Spectacled Eider2 Short Tailed Albatross with Chum

Arizona – Rufous Capped Warbler/Montezuma Quail

rufous-capped-warbler.jpg Montezuma's Quail1

Arkansas (Stay Tuned)

California – Nazca Booby/Yellow Footed Gull

Nazca Booby Headr Yellow Footed Gulls Obsidian

Colorado – Scaled Quail/Greater Prairie Chicken

42-Scaled Quail 30-Greater Prairie Chicken

Connecticut – Yellow Throated Vireo

Yellow Throated Vireo

Delaware – Clapper Rail/Seaside Sparrow/

Clapper Rail (2) - Copy seaside-sparrow-copy.jpg

Florida – Bananaquit/Swallow Tailed Kite

Bananaquit Best White Tailed Kite 4

Georgia – Sedge Wren


Hawaii – I’iwi/Red Billed Leiothorix 

Iiwi1 Red Billed Leiothorix

Idaho – Common Nighthawk


Illinois – Chestnut Sided Warbler

Chestnut Sided Warbler 1a

Indiana – Bobolink


Iowa (Stay Tuned)

Kansas (Stay Tuned)

Kentucky – Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Louisiana – Yellow Rail

Yellow Rail

Maine – Yellow Bellied Flycatcher/Atlantic Puffin

Yellow Bellied Flycatcher Atlantic Puffin 3 - Copy

Maryland – Swainson’s Warbler

Swainson's Warbler 2

Massachusetts – Black Scoters

Black Scoter Flock

Michigan – Kirtland’s Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler

Minnesota (Stay Tuned)

Mississippi – Yellow Crowned Night Heron

Yellow Crowned Night Heron 1

Missouri – Eurasian Tree Sparrow


Montana – Lincoln’s Sparrow/Western Tanager

Lincoln Sparrow Western Tanager1

Nebraska (Stay Tuned)

Nevada – Lucy’s Warbler

Lucy's Warbler2

New Hampshire – Purple Sandpipers

Purple Sandpipers2

New Jersey – Cape May Warbler/Gull Billed Tern

Cape May Warbler gull-billed-terns1.jpg

New Mexico – Sandhill Cranes/Black Rosy Finch

sandhill crane sunset black rosy finch with snow dust

New York – White Eyed Vireo

White Eyed Vireo1

North Carolina – Least Tern/Fea’s Petrel

Least Tern Hovering Fea's Petrel 1

North Dakota (Stay Tuned)

Ohio – Connecticut Warbler/Baltimore Oriole

Connecticut Warbler3 Baltimore Oriole with Orange

Oklahoma (Stay Tuned)

Oregon – Red Shouldered Hawk

Red Shouldered Hawk

Pennsylvania  – Black Billed Cuckoo

Black Billed Cuckoo

Rhode Island – Blue Winged Warbler/

Blue Winged Warbler

South Carolina – Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron Adult

South Dakota (Stay Tuned)

Tennessee – Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

Texas – Whooping Crane/Ferruginous Pygmy Owl

Whooping Crane4 Ferruginous Pygmy Owl 1

Utah – Flammulated Owl/White Faced Ibis

Flammulated Owl White Faced Ibis Vertical

Vermont – Philadelphia Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo2

Virginia – Red Headed Woodpecker

Red Headed WP1

Washington – Buller’s Shearwater

Buller's Shearwater1 Pelagic

West Virginia – Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler1

Wisconsin – Blackburnian Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler5

Wyoming  – Red Naped Sapsucker

Red Naped Sapsucker1

Birding and Chasing Here and There…and Ending with an (Un)Common Ringed Plover.

This is a down period between my 50/50/50 trips which will not resume until I head off to some of the prairie states in September.  While not as goal oriented as in previous years, I have been filling in some Washington species not yet seen in 2019 and also chasing some special birds hoping to add to year or life lists for either Washington or the ABA area.  There have been some disappointments and some very happy successes.

On June 23rd, I had a chance to add Heerman’s Gull to my 2019 lists visiting the fishing pier in hometown Edmonds where they visit each summer.  Bonus photos were of a pair of Marbled Murrelets, one with a small fish in bill.  Not really a chase – just some nice birds.

Heerman’s Gull

Heerman's Gull

Marbled Murrelet

Marbled Murrelet with Fish2

Two days later there was a chase.  Cindy and I went over to Sequim to enjoy a beautiful place and a beautiful day and also to chase a Hudsonian Godwit that had been seen at two hotspots there that were close to each other – Three Crabs and Dungeness Landing Park.  We started at the latter and were not successful.  At Three Crabs, we learned we had missed it by less than an hour.  Maybe we should have started there.  We waited and were joined by others including Paul Baerny, John Gatchet and Judith White.  After another wait, we decided to head over to Dungeness Landing again with mutual promises to call if seen at either place.  Nothing at Dungeness Landing again, so we decided to visit Nash’s Store, a Sequim fixture with wonderful local organic produce.  Just as we neared it I got a call from Paul.  The Hudsonian Godwit had just flown in.  I raced over and we were able to see it – broken leg and all.

Hudsonian Godwit


Not a mega rarity but especially until recently, the Hudsonian Godwit is a rare bird in Washington, maybe seen once a year.  This was my first record for 2019 and only my fourth in the state ever.  Paul has been very helpful to me and many others sharing information.  He is having a great Big Year in Washington and I hope he has some big numbers.  We then did make it to Nash’s and got some fabulous berries.

On June 29th Jon Houghton and I visited Hayton Reserve and Wylie Slough in Skagit County hoping for some shorebirds.  None were found but we easily found both of the Black Phoebes there.  Ebird still treats them as a rarity but one or more have been there for several years and they have expanded their range into a number of locations in Washington.  I believe a nest may have been found at Wylie this year.

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe

Since we were in the area, we made a stop at Sunday Lake Road where a Least Flycatcher was being seen, or at least heard, regularly.  I had been there the week before and had a microsecond view only although it gave its “che-bek” call nonstop for 30 minutes.  It appeared we would have the same fate again, but with some maneuvering I was able to get a visual and a photo.  This was an “after thought” chase.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

There was one more day in June and there would be one more chase – unfortunately an unsuccessful one, and success would have been very sweet indeed.  A sighting of a Crested Auklet at Discovery Park was reported on Tweeters on the morning of the 30th.  Discovery Park is one of my least favorite places to bird.  It is hard to get to and to me (and some others) it is both very confusing and with limited and inconvenient access.  I had seen a number of Crested Auklets during my pelagic trip out of Adak with Jon Puschock in May 2016 but somehow had not gotten a photo.  I figured I would never see another one and certainly not in Washington.  I raced down to Discovery Park – or at least tried to race down given the morning traffic.  My GPS took me to a road without public access but not knowing how to get back to an open road, I went to the end figuring I would turn around there.  I stopped briefly to scan the waters and found a large group of Rhinoceros Auklets and was excited as the Crested Auklet had been seen in such a flock.  I got even more excited when one of the birds seemed smaller.  Alas, it was only the light and the angle and it was just another Rhino.  Had I been there 45 minutes earlier, I might have seen it.  There were no further reports that day or thereafter.

Crested Auklet – Internet Photo from Audubon

Crested Auklet

July started off a lot better.  Cindy and I visited Snoqualmie Falls and enjoyed the view and a brief look at a couple of Black Swifts – target birds often seen there.  I missed a great photo opportunity as one quick view of the Swift was as it was being chased by a Peregrine Falcon with the Falls as a background…way too fast for my reflexes.  The only photo was of the Peregrine, one of a pair, as it perched on an outcropping afterwards.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The next day I made the trek down to Rainbow Falls SP to find a Hermit Warbler.  I heard one singing as soon as I arrived but there was a light rain and especially in the big trees favored by the Warbler, the lighting was terrible.  A Wilson’s Warbler was also singing – in fact non-stop.  The latter flew and perched all around me, but I could not get the Hermit to come down from the treetops.  So success finding a new year bird and then I had fun birding on Leudinghaus Road adding some new Lewis County birds (inadvertently) but a photo of the the Hermit would have been nice.

Hermit Warbler (from an earlier visit)

Hermit Warbler2

No more birds or birding until a real chase on July 8th.  A male Rose Breasted Grosbeak in breeding plumage was reported by Ed Swan, an excellent birder and nature writer.  It was coming to his feeder.  Forgetting that Ed had moved from Vashon Island to West Seattle, I had put off trying for it earlier not wanting to get hung up in the ferry traffic to Vashon over a holiday or weekend.  Jon Houghton had the right location and we got to Ed’s place around 9:30 a.m.  We waited and waited and waited watching the feeder from the comfortable shading and rain protection of Ed’s carport.  A small group of Band Tailed Pigeons flew in and seemed to finish off the seeds in the feeder.

Band Tailed Pigeon

Band Tailed Pigeon1

Some other birders joined our watching vigil.  One left after maybe 90 minutes.  Fortunately Ed came out and seeing that the feeder was empty, he added some seed.  We continued to see some birds – 20 species in all – but no Grosbeaks.  At 12:30, our patience was running thin and having been there almost 3 hours, Jon and I announced we would give it another 15 minutes but would have to leave at 12:45.  We had been hearing the call of a Pacific Slope Flycatcher but it had remained distant.  Now it made an appearance singing in the open for a moment, flycatching and then moving off to another branch or tree.  I was able to get a photo and figured that would be the consolation prize for our wait and failed chase.

Pacific Slope Flycatcher

Pacific Slope Flycatcher

I had tried much earlier without any result, but figured it would not hurt to play the song of the Rose Breasted Grosbeak one more time and did so around 12:35.  No immediate response but a few minutes later I heard what at least sounded like the “chink” call of the Grosbeak.  Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t but at exactly 12:43 with two minutes to go on our self imposed deadline, the Rose Breasted Grosbeak made an appearance at the feeder, staying for maybe 10 minutes.  If we had known it was “deadline aware” we would have issued our deadline two hours earlier.  Success!!  I have seen two other Rose Breasted Grosbeaks in Washington, but this was my first breeding plumaged male.  What a beauty!

Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Rose Breasted Grosbeak1r

Cindy and I had talked about a visit to Sun Mountain Lodge before.  Her birthday was coming up, the weather looked great … and I had not seen a Dusky Grouse yet this year.  Let’s go!!  It is a beautiful 4 hour drive to Sun Mountain Lodge just out of Winthrop, Washington.  Much of it is through the Cascades mountains and particularly through North Cascades National Park.  I hoped for an American Three Toed Woodpecker at Washington Pass, but had to settle for spectacular scenery.

North Cascades

North Cascades

The visit to Sun Mountain Lodge was as good as it gets.  The setting is gorgeous.  The Lodge is just right.  The food is exquisite.  The weather was perfect and there is excellent birding.  In years past, I have often had Dusky Grouse along the entrance road or in the parking area.  As we pulled into the latter, I heard a Lazuli Bunting singing and called it in for a stunning view.  No Grouse but that would be remedied soon.

Lazuli Bunting

Lazuli Bunting

After checking in and a brief moment to relax, we hiked down one of the trails below the parking area and found Dusky Grouse everywhere – at least 10 and maybe a dozen.  One was a female with 3 or 4 pretty sizable chicks.  Several were in the trees.  All were very approachable and photogenic.

Dusky Grouse

Dusky Grouse1

Dusky Grouse 3

There were no birds involved, but dinner that evening was excellent.  We had soups, a mushroom strudel starter, and two small plates (crab cakes and cornbread crusted sole), wine and shared a dessert.  Each dish was perfectly prepared and presented and yummy!!

Sun Mountain Dinner

Sun Mtn Dinner

Mushroom Strudel Starter

Mushroom Strudel

After dinner we drove up Thompson Ridge Road.  It was a beautiful night – perfect for night birds with a clear sky, no wind and just warm enough.  I have had Flammulated Owls there twice.  I heard only one in the far distance this night but we had lots of Common Poorwills and Common Nighthawks and also heard a Great Horned Owl and a Long Eared Owl.  We did not hear or see another human or car.  Wonderful!!

So that was a pretty fun two weeks of birding – a very fun two weeks of living.  Great food, great friends, great birds and great places.  A Crested Auklet in Washington with a photo would have been nice to be sure, but there was something just around the corner that would more than make up for that.

Just after 8 p.m. on the night of Sunday, July 14th I got a text from dear friend and super birder Melissa Hafting from Vancouver, B.C.  “I think I just found a Common Ringed Plover…need to review my photos but pretty sure!!  I’m so excited.”  It was followed by another text 15 minutes later: “Common Ringed Plover confirmed!!”  She didn’t use smiley faces or GIF’s but I could almost feel her excitement through the phone.  This was a big deal – a mega-rarity that was beyond expectation for British Columbia or Washington.

The Common Ringed Plover is a small shorebird common in the Eastern Hemisphere which is very closely related to and very hard to distinguish from the Semipalmated Plover which is common in the Western Hemisphere.  As of September 2017 there had been 15 observations of a Common Ringed Plover in the ABA area outside of Alaska including one in Washington in 2006.  An adult was seen in British Columbia on September 5, 2018.   All of the others had been from the Eastern United Sates or Canada.  Additionally, there have been a number of sightings in remote Alaska.

I had a lunch scheduled for the next day but it was with an understanding friend and could be rescheduled.  I had to go.  A few calls and emails notified others.  I posted it on Facebook and Tweeters and planned to make a try for the afternoon/evening of July 15th – heading to Beach Grove spit on Boundary Bay near Tsawwassen about 2.5 hours from Edmonds depending on the border crossing time.  A couple of invitees could not make it, but Ann Marie Wood, Jon Houghton and I headed north at 11:00 .am. planning to make the incoming high tide around 4 p.m.  We got to the parking area ahead of schedule and met a local birder who was coming out from his unsuccessful try for the bird.  He said the tide was extremely low and there were NO birds present.  It was about 2:50 p.m.

Rather than sit and stare at barren mudflats for a couple of hours, we headed off for a little sustenance and conversation returning to the area around 5:00 p.m.  Again we met a birder who was coming back to the parking lot.  It was one of the birders that had seen the Common Ringed Plover the previous evening.  He said the tide had come in very quickly and the area where the bird had been seen the day before was already covered.  He had not seen it this day.  Others were still out there looking.  Had we miscalculated and arrived too late?  Yes and no.  Maybe more than miscalculating, we had misunderstood.  The Common Ringed Plover had been seen the previous day on an outgoing high tide not an incoming one.  It looked like the prime time if the pattern held would be maybe a couple of hours later.  There was hope.

We hiked out on the trail maybe a third of a mile and encamped at a convenient bench.  There were a dozen or so Canadian birders stationed a bit further along the trail.  Over the next hour several more birders – all local – arrived and learned as we had that the Common Ringed Plover had not been seen – yet…  The prime area was a cove right in front of us with the spit maybe 120 yards further out.  We waited as the tide hits it peak and began to recede.  Sometime after 6:30 Melissa arrived with Ilya Povalyaev.  They were the ones who had first seen and identified it the night before and are our good friends.  If nothing else it would be great to visit with them again.  As everyone waited patiently (and considerately) on the path looking across to the spit and crossing fingers that the Common Ringed Plover would arrive as the water level fell, one birder hiked around and out to the spit in exactly the area that the few birds that were around were flying and which might be the likely place for our target to first arrive.  In fact a single small plover was seen flying into the area and then disappearing behind the raised area of the spit.  There was no way to identify it but it was near where this birder was walking.  Displeasure with this potential interference rose as the water level fell.  It hit a high point when the birder – on the far side of the spit and facing out to the water started taking photographs of … something,  Was it our bird?  Nobody knew and he was not communicating anything back.

Around 7:30 the birder returned to the masses with photos.  He was not sure of what but it was either a Semipalmated Plover or THE Common Ringed Plover.  It was definitely the single bird that had flown in maybe 30 minutes prior.  After discussion and debate of was it or wasn’t it, one of the birders decided it was time to trek out to the spit, hope it was still there and find out.  I think we had all hesitated doing so before as a courtesy to everyone else and a recognition that the previous observation had been inside the spit closer to the trail.  So much for hesitation.  Once one birder headed off, all followed.  This was a very wise decision as after the 5 minute walk, there was the bird, sitting on the wrack line on the far side of the spit, completely invisible to anyone who was watching from the trail.

I did a quick look through my scope and it sure looked like the same bird that had been seen the night before:  broad breast band, large and distinct supercilium, pale back, long bill with a dark tip.  Time for a photo as I had been the second person to the bird and now others were arriving.  Would it fly off as most Semipalmated Plovers I had seen on open beaches did?  Here is the first photo I took:

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover First Photo

It definitely did not fly off and in fact remained almost as if glued to the spot for the next 20 minutes or more as everyone arrived, set up scopes and took photo after photo.  More discussion and debate.  What about the bill?  Did the black extend to the gape?  Was there a ring around the eye?  Could anyone see webbing on the toes?  Slowly a consensus built, driven by observation and analysis and not hope and desire.  This was the same bird seen the previous evening and most importantly, it was a Common Ringed Plover.  The final confirmation came with an amazing photo by Raymond Ng that showed no webbing between the middle and inner toe.

Common Ringed Plover – Foot

Common Ringed Plover Foot

Suddenly the bird flew off.  Was it gone?  It landed on the beach maybe 150 feet from its first perch and remained there for the next 20 minutes.  During the entire time it had been on the spit, it had never foraged, fed or associated with other birds.  It tolerated the group approaching fairly close and was unfazed by our noise or movement.  This behavior was unlike any I had seen from shorebirds before and supported an identification as a bird out of place and possibly not in good health.

I don’t know how many photos were taken by the birders – many thousands for sure.  Mine were mostly the same ones over and over although I moved trying for different perspectives of the subject.

Common Ringed Plover

Common Ringed Plover2

Common Ringed Plover Palmation

Common Ringed Plover

Ann Marie, being the trooper she is, was able to make it out onto the spit.  I pointed out the bird and she got a good view with her binoculars.  I retrieved my scope which I had set aside in my picture taking frenzy and lowered it for her to view this still immobile rarity.  This was a life bird for Ann Marie.  Jon and I had seen it in other countries in the Eastern Hemisphere and I even had a photograph from South Africa.  These were so much better.  And so much better too for it to be in the ABA area.  In those other places, “common” did hold true.  Not here.  In this neighborhood it should be called an Extremely UnCommon Ringed Plover.

We said our goodbyes and trekked back to the parking area and headed home.  Coming into Canada, the border control person was friendly, respectful, courteous and efficient.  Not the case returning to the U.S.  The control agent was rude, inefficient, unpleasant and disrespectful.  Reminded us of a certain loathsome person in Washington, D.C.  Another nice aspect of birding is that when doing so, that person and our attending problems are forgotten.  Sorry to end on that sad note.  Think I will go birding…


The Common Ringed Plover was seen for a brief moment the next morning but that evening 60+ birders waited for hours and it did not make an appearance.  Brings to mind Rule #1 for a chase:  “Go now!” We did.  We were fortunate.



Montana – 50/50/50 at Its Best – and A Summary of the Mountain State Trip


50 species on 50 days in 50 states shared with great people, visiting great places and having fun.  That’s what this crazy idea of mine was supposed to be all about.  Before reaching Montana, I had been successful in achieving that in 41 states.  There had been a lot of planning and lots of good fortune – especially on the weather front where I had no rain or heavy wind that had interfered with any of the planning – with any of the birding.  Truly wonderful birds, people and places.  Planning for Montana was different than any of the previous states.  It included a “leap of faith” – not my strongest suit.

We would be visiting friends of Cindy’s in Helena that were interested in birding and had birded in the area.  I did some preliminary research for good birding spots in the vicinity and felt 50 species in a day should be doable if the weather cooperated.  But the weather reports were iffy and we would be relying on these friends to plan the day.  And it wasn’t clear even which day it would be as we would be visiting for several and there were non-birding things on the agenda.  I “needed” my 50 species, but these were to be important new friends because they were important to Cindy and also because they were very interesting folks as well.  I wanted to get to know them and for the visit to be successful and enjoyable.  Preliminary communications were positive although less specific and detailed than my hyper-focused attention to the birding were accustomed to.  Have faith Blair, have faith.  Ok, but I could not fully dampen concern about my own lesser preparation.

Great birds, great people, great places and having fun were the starting goals for the 50/50/50 adventure, but along the way I have learned that there is another one that might be more important.  Without losing my admitted intensity during this quest, I have tried to balance that with some elements of personal growth, faith in others, flexibility, patience and a greater appreciation of the journey and what it provides in addition to or maybe even in place of some numeric measurement of success.  My ability to do this had grown, but there was plenty of room for further growth.  All of this had occupied my mind before leaving Wyoming for Montana and I replaced worry with a strong belief that even if somehow 50 species were not found, other meaningful things would be and at worst, I would simply return to Montana at some other time – maybe tied in to a fishing trip or on the way to the Dakotas and that would be just fine.  As it turned out I needn’t have worried in the first place, but especially reflecting on this now, I rank this realization and attitude adjustment as one of the best parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure to date.

Back to Birding – Part 1 – Getting to Helena, Montana

Jackson Hole to Helena

So much for introspection and self analysis – on with the birding and the many other great parts of this visit to the Treasure State.  The drive from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Helena, Montana through Yellowstone National Park was 315 miles and due mostly to low speed limits and slow traffic through the Park was projected to be 6 hours and 18 minutes.  Even with an early start (thank you Cindy), after the four hours it took us to get through the Park exiting at West Yellowstone, it was after 11:00 a.m.  It was another beautiful day and with a stop for lunch and some “casual birding” along the way, we projected arriving in Helena around 5:00 p.m.  Around Hebgen Lake in Montana we found 19 species with nothing of note.  We had a lunch at the Gravel Bar Restaurant in Ennis, Montana.  It looked like fun and it was – the kind of place that we would look for wherever we stopped, avoiding the fast food chains and generally being pleased with the quality and finding some little surprise on the menu.  Here it was that the Taco Salad included wagyu beef.  As we left, we noted a House Sparrow and an American Kestrel.

Gravel Bar Restaurant

Gravel Bar Restaurant

During my recent birding in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, I had often found a little county road just off the highway that had more of a small farm/ranch agricultural habitat which had added new species for the day.  There was no specific goal to look for 50 species that day as the plan was to go out the next day with friends Liz and Rick.  Speeding past North Meadow Creek Road just out of Ennis, I recalled the previous experience and thought the road looked interesting.  After a quick u-turn, we gave it a shot.  As had been the case in those forays in the other states previously, we found some nice new birds.  Of particular note were the numerous Eastern Kingbirds.  As had happened on many “non-birding” days before, species were starting to add up and now we had seen 32 for the day.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Our Garmin GPS – both a best friend and biggest enemy on this trip – sent us on a circular and then back tracking route that added 15 miles to our journey, but we were still in good shape time-wise.  About a half hour later we stopped at a tiny little wetland/marshy area alongside Highway 287 and added 6 more species including Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren and Great Blue Heron.  It was happening again.  Despite no planning and not much real habitat diversity, we now had seen 38 species.  Maybe 50 species was possible.  Given my introspective concern described at the start of this post, I thought that maybe we could find 50 this day and completely remove pressure for the visit with friends.  Maybe…

Maybe got closer when Cindy spotted a pair of Sandhill Cranes in a field another 20 minutes ahead.  It became closer again when a Mountain Bluebird flew across the field and then closer yet when I found a surprise Common Loon and a Northern Rough Winged Swallow in a small body of water a bit further along.  It was about 3:30 p.m.  We were about an hour and a half from Helena – right on time – and we had 43 species for the day.  What might be next?  Would the habitat change?

In another 20 minutes or so, we saw birds hanging around some cattle in the field.  Another quick u-turn enabled us to identify our first Brown Headed Cowbirds of the day and then, returning to our northward route, we saw a pair of Western Bluebirds, two more Sandhill Cranes and a Mourning Dove.  This had been the least focused, most casual and frankly uninteresting birding of the entire trip, but here we were at 46 species.  Soon we would be on Interstate 15.  We were only 45 minutes from Helena.  If we could just find a forested area, surely we could find 4 more species.  Fortunately you pass through just such an area in the mountains just before dropping down into Helena.

We took a detour off of I-15 onto Highway 282 and then onto Tizer Lake Road.  We stopped at very promising habitat at the Tizer Arboretum and Botanic Garden.  I heard songs that I could not identify but the place seemed to be mostly a commercial operation and we were not comfortable continuing onto the grounds.  A short way further down the road, we turned onto Silver Gate Lane and BINGO!!  “Peent, Peent, Peent”. I first heard and then saw a Common Nighthawk as soon as we got out of the car.  “Yank, yank, yank” a Red Breasted Nuthatch was upset at something and seconds later a Cooper’s Hawk screamed past us.  Maybe the Nuthatch’s call had given away its presence.  There had to be another species around.  And there was – a Mountain Chickadee joined the call of the Nuthatch and as I searched the canopy for either of these common denizens of the forest, I saw three or four Pine Siskins.  Fifty species with one to spare and then as a bonus a beautiful Western Tanager posed for us as well.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager1

We were a little late getting to Helena, but our hosts had been advised and dinner plans were casual and flexible.  I even added a House Finch at a neighbor’s feeder upon arrival so we had 53 species for the day, “money in the bank” so to speak.  It was time to relax, be on vacation, enjoy new friends and reflect on misplaced worries and how mighty damn fortunate I am to be able to participate in a world of wonder, beauty, surprises and lessons.

It had been another great day and the following ones would be even better.

I am pretty sure I had never been to Helena, Montana before and I knew very little about it.  Our directions to the home of our hosts included a turn onto “Last Chance Gulch”.  A colorful name for sure.  Having no idea where Rick and Liz lived, I wondered if we off to some gravel road.  Not at all, it is a major road coming into the city whose name is derived from the place where gold was discovered in 1864 and started the boom for this mining town that literally put it on the map.  Unlike many other boom towns, Helena survived the depletion of the gold and became the Territorial capital in 1875 and the State Capital in 1894 when Montana became the 41st state in the Union.  It remains the capital today with a population of 31,000 in a state whose population is just over one million.  Montana is a very big state with a very small population.  It also has a very large number of rivers full of trout and that will become important later in this post.

Liz Gans and Rick Newby were wonderful hosts with great life stories to share and an intimate knowledge of Helena and Montana having been fully involved in life there for many years.  Neither beginning nor expert but very capable birders, they were fully engaged in my quest for 50 species and were eager participants in what turned into a very fun day.  We compared notes and decided to concentrate on birding at the various ponds at Warm Springs with some stops at other habitat areas to pad our list.

Helena, Montana

Helena Montana

As had been the case in my other 50/50/50 days, I accumulated some common and more urban series early on.  Included on that list was one of what would be many Black Billed Magpies.  Usually found in rural areas, they were common in the neighborhoods in Helena itself.  I was very surprised to find one in the open on a rock pile close to our hosts home.

Black Billed Magpie


We thus had 9 species before hitting the highway out of Helena.  Liz directed us to a forested spot just off Highway 12 hoping for a repeat of the experience Cindy and I had the previous day to get over 50 species.  It also a gave us a chance to find a species that would be a lifer for Liz, a MacGillivray’s Warbler.  It looked very promising when we found some Cassin’s Finches just before getting into the forest.  But otherwise at least at the start, it was surprisingly quiet except for some very noisy American Robins.

Cassin’s Finches

Cassin's Finches

Liz heard a call, over and over, that she did not know.  Unfortunately neither did I but it was definitely a new bird for the day.  Later after listening to a number of recordings, I am pretty sure it was a partial song of the Ruby Crowned Kinglet, a species I thought I had glimpsed briefly but never saw clearly.  Otherwise, silence.  In these situations, I often resort to a favorite birding standby – playing the continuing toots of a Pygmy Owl which often stirs small forest birds into noisy action, gathering to protest and challenge the owl’s presence.  After several minutes of toots – nothing.  We considered departing but then brought back the Pygmy Owl toots and now it worked.  Often a Red Breasted Nuthatch is the first to respond joined soon thereafter by Chickadees.  Neither responded here, but I began to hear calls including chip notes and the song of a warbler – a MacGillivray’s Warbler.  A very active skulker, it put on a real show circling us, teasing us with short views and then disappearing in dense foliage.  Liz was thrilled – especially when she was able to get a good enough view to see its bold white eye arcs.  The light was bad and the photo is even worse, but those arcs are visible and validates the observation, always nice for a life bird.

MacGillivray’s Warbler


The MacGillivray’s was not the only show.  One song we heard was like a Robin’s, but different.  I had learned to identify the song of the Warbling Vireo and called it out.  It seemed to be reacting to the Pygmy Owl but was distant.  Fortunately it did not take long to draw it in with playback of its own song and it gave us excellent if at first momentary views flying back and forth across our path before finally settling on an open perch where it continued to sing out its territorial imperative.  Cindy recalled a similar experience we had in Eastern Washington on one of her first birding trips.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo1

One more show.  We had seen some sparrows low in the brush as the action heated up.  A White Crowned Sparrow came into the open and was easily identified.  But there was another sparrow as well and it was mostly hiding.  I got a sufficiently good look recognized it as a Lincoln’s Sparrow – very appropriate in this somewhat moist forested habitat.  I think this was a second lifer for Liz.  Being able to see the fieldmarks and the buffy facial cast of the face and breast in a quick photo was very helpful and may have pushed Liz closer to adding some bird photography as part of her future birding experience.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln Sparrow

Altogether we ended up with 11 species which after a slow start was terrific.  One of the species was an empidonax flycatcher that at first I thought was a Cordilleran Flycatcher.  Spending more time looking at photos and listening to songs at home, I am now changing my ID to a Dusky Flycatcher based on the absence of any crest and the length of the tail but could easily be convinced to change that ID again.

Possible Cordilleran Flycatcher turned into a Dusky Flycatcher

Possible Cordilleran Flycatcher

With the strong finish, we were now at 20 species and were back on U.S. 12 quickly picking up Common Grackle, Red Winged and Brewer’s Blackbirds, Brown Headed Cowbird, Barn and Cliff Swallows and Savannah Sparrow to get to 28 before hitting the Ponds.


There are ponds on both sides of the road.  We started with the Ducks Unlimited Ponds at Warm Springs.  Although we did not get great looks, or any looks at all for a couple of species, we had very good birds including a Long Billed Curlew and a SoraMarsh Wrens, Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats were singing everywhere.  We spent an hour and a half in the area and with our list at 42 species, we gave in to hunger.

When Rick suggested we could find something good in Anaconda I probably winced.   In my mind Anaconda, Montana meant pollution.  Until 1980 when it was shut down, Anaconda was the home of a giant smelter that refined copper mined in nearby Butte and elsewhere.  It was owned by ARCO who undertook remediation and cleanup of the heavy metal lead and arsenic poisons that came along with the extensive tailings.  I had only a vague memory of the Environmental Protection Agency actions at the site – back in the days that the agency actually took on environmental problems – but that memory equated Anaconda with places I did not want to visit.  It is a small town without much economic vitality.  I envisioned bars and nothing more.

But Rick guided us to a really fun little place – a hidden fun gem – the Classic Cafe.  A throwback to the 1960’s when Anaconda was still in business, we were greeted by two of the most unique tables I have seen – literally inside two car bodies.  Very cute.  Rick is a tall guy and there was not room for his long legs, so we actually ate at a more normal table.  I do like the picture, though.

classic cafe1 Car Cafe

As with the Gravel Bar in Ennis and several restaurants that will come up later, this was another example of one of the joys of my 50 state adventure.  Maybe especially in smaller towns, there are surprise opportunities for the unusual, the fun, the expression of other people’s passions and talents.  The food was pretty classic American comfort food but was excellently prepared and served.  This was also another example of the values of joining with local people.  We never would have found this on our own.

Time to get back to the birds and we returned to Warm Springs – now on the other side of the highway – much more extensive and open ponds.  We had picked up two more species on our lunch trip and were soon to add many more as over the next two hours as we found 42 species at these ponds.

Warm Springs

Many classic wetland species – 9 duck species, Canada Goose, American Coot, Double Crested Cormorant, Red Necked Grebe, Great Blue Heron, American White Pelican, California Gull, the fish eating raptors – Osprey and Bald Eagle and Yellow Headed Blackbirds.

Cinnamon Teal


Red Necked Grebe




Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird2

We were all pleased to end the day with what we thought was 64 species.  When I looked at photos later and found that we had also seen a Yellow Rumped Warbler, especially Rick was even more pleased because this put Montana one species ahead of Wyoming!!  Now I have added the Ruby Crowned Kinglet so the official end count for the day was 66.   I was also paying some attention to my Montana state list.  I had birded Montana before on some fishing trip visits.  With the birds added on this day, my state list was at 97 species.  Additional incidental birding the next day with Liz and Rick when we visited Spring Meadow Lake and then later when Cindy and I were able to float the Bitterroot River brought that total to 103 – not a goal but a pleasing addition to the benefits of the trip.  The important goal was the 50 species in a day.  As had been the case in Utah and then Wyoming, 50 species were seen on each of two birding days in Montana as well.  This was the 42nd state where the goals of my adventure was reached.  It was going to get harder, but this was continued good momentum.

Anyone reading all of my blog posts might be tired of hearing it but I have not yet and hope I will never be tired of repeating that the best parts of my 50/50/50 Adventure are not about the birds, as great as many of those moments are.  The best part is how following my passion for birding gets me out into so many great places and situations and brings so many experiences that I would otherwise miss.  Liz and Rick had been terrific birding companions and we had seen the targeted 50 species.  Now their roles changed to Helena guides taking Cindy and me to one of their favorite spots, one unique to Helena and one we would never have known about without them – The Archie Bray Foundation.

As described on its website:

The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts is a public, nonprofit, educational institution founded in 1951 by brickmaker Archie Bray, who intended it to be “a place to make available for all who are seriously interested in any of the branches of the ceramic arts, a fine place to work.” Its primary mission is to provide an environment that stimulates creative work in ceramics.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bray is located three miles from downtown Helena, Montana, on the site of the former Western Clay Manufacturing Company. Set against the wooded foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the 26-acre former brickyard is internationally recognized as a gathering place for emerging and established ceramic artists. The nearby mountains and brick factory ruins provide a backdrop for the creative environment; more important is the dynamic arts community created by the resident artists that come to the Bray to work, share experiences, and explore new ideas.”

Archie Bray Foundation

Our friends are deeply connected with this wonderful place, through their former work and continuing with support today and our visit to their home was also a visit to their collection of great ceramic pieces – a veritable museum itself.  Cindy and I joined them in visiting the Bray and had a chance to speak with a number of artists, see works in progress and see many finished pieces – some appealing and some not but all incredible creations and impressive statements of the passions of their creators.

One last comment on our visit with Rick and Liz and Helena.  On my own, food on these 50/50/50 trips is generally grabbed quickly and eaten but not savored or appreciated as anything other than sustenance.  Among the benefits traveling with Cindy is that where feasible, eating becomes dining and we have had some great meals in fun places.  We had been well hosted and fed by Rick and Liz and we had a small chance to reciprocate with a lovely meal at The Mediterranean Grill in Helena.  Excellent food that we would love to have available home in Edmonds.

mediterranean grill Helena

We left Helena headed for Hamilton, Montana on the Bitterroot River.  If Washington had more Blue Ribbon trout rivers, much of the time I have spent birding may have been spent flyfishing instead.  I could not pass on an opportunity for some fishing before returning to Washington and also to expose Cindy to one more activity I loved that I hoped she would as well.  We had a long float on the Bitterroot with excellent guide John Gould.  I always remind myself that it is called “fishing” and not “catching”.  The catching could have been better, but the fishing was pretty good and it was a lot of fun.

Cindy had done a lot of salmon fishing but had never cast a fly.  It is not the easiest thing to do.  She had lots of frustration and never quite found a consistent groove, but she also had lots of good moments including hooking and landing her first trout on a fly, a beautiful Cutthroat Trout, one of several she would catch.

Cindy’s Cutthroat Trout

Cindy's Trout

We never found a hoped for hatch so all of our action was on nymphs below the surface of the water.  Not as much fun as dry fly takes on the surface, but there is not much better than setting a hook, playing and landing a powerful fish in a gorgeous trout stream.  Not as often as I would have liked, but I had a dozen or so fish in the boat including some very nice Rainbow Trout.

Rainbow Trout


Maybe next year we will return for more fishing and more catching as well.

One last Montana story.  The night before going fishing, we were looking for a good dinner but every restaurant of interest was closing at 8:00 p.m.  What was with that?  One that was open later was the Skalkaho Steak House somewhat in the boonies about 10 miles from our hotel.  I called to see if we could get a reservation and was told it was not necessary – tables were open.  The drive up the Skalkaho Road was pretty and when we arrived we were not sure we were at the right place.  There were NO cars in the parking lot.  A sign said “Open”.  Hmmm?  A little girl was playing with a ball on the front porch and that was the only sign of life.  Hmmm?  By this time, it was fairly late and we knew that the only options would be fast food back in town.  Let’s try it.

The little girl was Chloe.  She was the daughter/granddaughter of the owners.  She was 8 years old.  She welcomed us to the restaurant, led us to a table, and brought us water, silverware and menus.  We were the only guests in the restaurant and it was not a small place.  The walls were lined with very serious, large, beautiful and professionally done trophies – not bowling or sports trophies – Elk, Deer, Antelope, Bighorns, Bear and Cougar.  This was the West and it was like being at a hunting lodge.  It was eerie being the only guests…but it was cool and fun.  Our interactions first with Chloe and then with her grandma and then with our good (and well priced) steaks were treasured little moments in our trip – unlike any experience either Cindy or I had had at any other restaurant in our lives.  No other diners arrived.  Grandma explained that it had been very cold (including snow further up the valley as we later found out) and that people just did not come when it was cold.  This was June 20th.  We had worried about it being too hot.  Not so.  A little slice of life in rural Montana.  Good times with good folks.

Skalkaho Steak House

Steak house

Summing Up the Mountain States

Montana was everything I could have asked for on a 50/50/50 birding trip…or any trip.  50+ species on a day – twice.  Great new friends.  Unexpected good food.  A deep look into the world of ceramics.  Flyfishing (and birding) with the new lady in my life on a beautiful river with some feisty trout.  Learning to have a bit more faith in others.  Montana was another confirmation that this birding adventure was so much more than just birds and that it was both workable and working, providing rewards far beyond the investment.

We got back to Edmonds after a very long drive on the 22nd.  On a brief detour to Turnbull NWR, we found some Black Terns – a FOY for Washington and the ABA area #293 for the former and #418 for the latter.  In Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Montana, on the trip I had a total of 156 species.  Adding those on the journey to and from Washington brought it to 176 species.  The Cassia Crossbill in Idaho was a new ABA  Life Bird and it and the Flammulated Owl in Utah were new ABA Life Photos.  It was a wonderful trip – 3700 miles of great birds, people and places.  Time for a little rest and then try to finish the adventure with 8 states in the middle of the county.  

Cassia Crossbill and Flammulated Owl – Best of the Birds

Cassia Crossbill3  Flammulated Owl